December 16, 2005 in Nation/World

Sen. William Proxmire, political maverick, dies at 90

Frederic J. Frommer Associated Press
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A Proxmire Top 10

Golden Fleece award winners

» William Proxmire bestowed monthly Golden Fleece awards from 1975 to 1988 for what he called a “wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers’ money.” Taxpayers for Common Sense put together a Top 10 list of Golden Fleece recipients:

» 10. The Department of Commerce for giving Honolulu $28,600 in 1981 to study how they could spend another $250,000 for a good surfing beach.

» 9. The Health Care Financing Administration for Medicaid payments to psychiatrists for unscheduled, coincidental meetings with patients who were attending basketball games, sitting on stoops, etc. – the cost of which was between $40 million and $80 million from 1981 to 1984.

» 8. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration for spending $2 million in 1978 on a prototype police patrol car that was never completed. The car was loaded with gadgets and would have cost $49,078 each.

» 7. The Department of the Navy for using 64 planes to fly 1,334 officers to Las Vegas for a 1974 reunion of the Tailhook Association.

» 6. The National Endowment for the Humanities for a $25,000 grant in 1977 to study why people cheat, lie and act rudely on local Virginia tennis courts.

» 5. The Office of Education for spending $219,592 in 1978 to develop a curriculum to teach college students how to watch television.

» 4. The Environmental Protection Agency for spending $1 million to $1.2 million in 1980 to preserve a Trenton, N.J., sewer as a historical monument.

» 3. The Department of the Army for spending $6,000 in 1981 to prepare a 17-page document on how to buy a bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

» 2. The Economic Development Administration for spending $20,000 in 1981 to construct an 800-foot replica of the Great Wall of China in Bedford, Ind.

» 1. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for spending millions of dollars in 1975 to find out if drunken fish are more aggressive than sober fish and if rats can be systematically turned into alcoholics.

WASHINGTON – Sen. William Proxmire, the Wisconsin Democrat who fought government waste for years with his mocking “Golden Fleece” awards, died Thursday at 90.

Proxmire was known for battling for causes that few colleagues embraced. He won re-election repeatedly without accepting campaign donations and fought year after year for ratification of an anti-genocide treaty.

The former senator, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, died at Copper Ridge, a convalescent home in Sykesville, Md.

Proxmire’s monthly “Golden Fleece” awards, which he began in 1975 to point out what he thought were frivolous expenditures of taxpayers’ money, became a Washington tradition. He also fought for decades for passage of an anti-genocide treaty, which the Senate finally approved in 1986, two years before his retirement.

He was elected to the Senate in 1957 to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator made infamous for his communist witch hunts.

Long before the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law was a twinkle in the eye of lawmakers, and at a time when millions were spent campaigning for Senate seats, Proxmire made a point of accepting no contributions. In 1982 he registered only $145.10 in campaign costs, yet gleaned 64 percent of the vote.

Over the years, the rebel Democrat developed an image of penny-pinching populism that played well with his home-state voters.

The son of a wealthy physician in Lake Forest, Ill., Proxmire graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School. He served with military intelligence in World War II and later moved to Wisconsin to begin a career in politics.

After three unsuccessful attempts at winning the governorship, Proxmire won McCarthy’s vacant seat.

Soon he carved out a reputation as a senator with an independent streak, introducing amendments without consulting the party heads, filibustering, and even criticizing the dictates of then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.

In more than two decades, Proxmire did not travel abroad on Senate business and he returned more than $900,000 from his office allowances to the Treasury. He repeatedly sparked his colleagues’ ire by opposing salary increases and fighting against perks such as a new gym in the Hart Office Building.

Even so, his reputation was that of a workaholic and even his strongest critics found him to be one of the chamber’s most disciplined, intelligent and persistent members.

He held the longest unbroken record in the history of the Senate for roll call votes.

Proxmire said his biggest mistake in Congress was his early support for the Vietnam War, a position he reversed in 1967.

Proxmire groomed his physical prowess as well as political. He kept in shape with rigorous exercise, ran several miles to work each day, and wrote a book about keeping fit. He even got a facelift and a hair transplant.

As Proxmire increased in seniority, he became less of a budget nitpicker and more of an effective legislator. He served for six years as head of the Senate Banking Committee, where he first opposed, and then backed, the federal bailout for New York City.

He also focused on consumer legislation, pushing a “truth in lending” law through Congress to protect borrowers.

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