Senator Proxmire and the Golden Fleece

Fifty years ago a Wisconsin Senator by the name of William Proxmire took his seat in that hallowed chamber called the United States Senate and for the next 31 years no free-spender was safe. He hated government waste with a passion and there was (and is) lots of it to hate in Washington.

Senwilliamproxmire1_1He wasn’t wasteful with his campaign money either. He seldom spent more than $200 on his own re-election campaigns, most of that for postage to send back campaign contributions. And yet he was elected five times to the Senate. He’s been called a Senate gadfly and my dictionary defines ‘gadfly’ as a ‘persistently annoying person.’ That seems a bit harsh and it might be that we could use a few more gadflies in Congress, if he is representative. Proxmire said "Power always has to be kept in check; power exercised in secret, especially under the cloak of national security, is doubly dangerous." Words to live by and legislate by and a timely reminder to us all.

Bill thought he was sent to Washington to stay there and attend to the chores of the Senate. And he did, setting the record in his time for Senate attendance and still holding the record for consecutive roll-call votes. Proxmire cast his 12,134th vote in April of 1990.

From March of 1975, for the next thirteen years, William Proxmire awarded a monthly Golden Fleece Award for the most (in his opinion) outrageously wasteful government spending or grant.  He was inspired to create the award as a way to galvanize public opinion against wasteful spending.  His first Golden Fleece Award went to the National Science Foundation for conducting an $84,000 study about why people fall in love.  After that, the Golden Fleece Award became a regular news feature and favorite with the public.

It made him few friends among his Senate peers.

Proxmire told The Wall Street Journal in 1988, “The purpose of the award was to dramatize wasteful and extravagant spending to try to discourage it.  Highlighting specific, single wasteful expenditures is more effective than simply complaining in a general way about government waste.” Winners included;

  • A $27,000 study to determine why inmates want to escape from prison.
  • A six thousand dollar, seventeen-page page document on how to buy Worcestershire Sauce.
  • The Department of Agriculture, for spending nearly $46,000 to find out how long it takes to cook breakfast.
  • The National Institute for Mental Health, $97,000 for funding a study of behavior and social relationships in a Peruvian brothel.
  • And Proxmire’s own personal favorite, a study to find out whether sunfish that drink tequila are more aggressive than sunfish who drink gin.

You get the drift.

In celebration of Proxmire’s 80th birthday, Senator Christopher Dodd proclaimed,

“Senator Proxmire is perhaps best remembered for his fanatical devotion to saving taxpayer dollars.  He refused to travel abroad at government expense, and he returned $1 million to the Treasury over 6 years by cutting back on staff expenses.  This commitment to personal thrift gave him the credibility to stand up to the waste of taxpayer money elsewhere in the governmen.  Golden Fleece not only makes its point about the potential dangers of ill-managed and ill-conceived government programs, but reminds us of the humor and character of this noble public servant.”

Senwilliamproxmire2Taxpayers for Common Sense has revived and continued the award. Senator Proxmire personally sat on its advisory board in its first few years. Awards can be checked out at the Golden Fleece web site ( Taxpayers for Common Sense also makes available the excellent repository of historical information on the original Fleece, including the only complete list of all Fleece awards. Even so, the awards will never have the popularity or the media clout they had when Bill Proxmire, the senior Senator from the state of Wisconsin gave them out monthly.

Bill is dead this week, at 93 years of age and the Senate rolls merrily along without fear of his accusatory Golden Fleece.

For more comments on Washington at work, see my personal web site.

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