December 18, 2005
A Cheapskate's Ample Legacy
During his long career in politics, Richard Nixon said a lot of
things that were not strictly true. But the biggest misstatement
of all may have come in 1958, when he went to Wisconsin to campaign
against Democratic Sen. William Proxmire. If Proxmire were re-elected,
Nixon told voters, "you will be in for a wild spending binge
by radical Democrats drunk with visions of votes."
worse things than that -- Proxmire, after all, had won the seat
after the death of red-baiter Joseph McCarthy, whose reckless
smears got him censured by the Senate. But as it turned out, Proxmire
was to wild spending what the Dalai Lama is to barroom brawls.
died Thursday at the age of 90, he took with him the reputation
of one of the most consistent cheapskates in the history of Washington.
Though many Republicans regarded him as a liberal, the National
Taxpayers Union ranked him the best senator on spending issues
10 times -- "a phenomenal record that may never be equaled,"
according to President John Berthoud.
accused him of showboating with his perennial Golden Fleece awards
for outlays that struck him as ridiculous, like a $2,500 study
on why people are rude on tennis courts. Some of the items may
have been less silly than he made them sound, but his scrutiny
of them dramatized the question: Aren't there some things the
federal government should not do?
didn't stop with programs that could be easily lampooned. He once
infuriated the mayor of Milwaukee by opposing a public-works bill
that would have brought the city millions of dollars to renovate
the downtown area. Proxmire said it would cost Wisconsin taxpayers
twice as much as they would get back.
estimates for a proposed dam in LaFarge, Wis., tripled, he traveled
there to announce his opposition in front of local residents.
"Some of those people were in tears -- they were enraged,"
he said later. Even he, however, was not so fastidious as to oppose
the wasteful program to prop up milk prices, which helped sustain
farmers in the Dairy State.
cause to wish Proxmire were the free-spender he once portrayed.
In 1970, the senator led the successful fight to kill the president's
Supersonic Transport project, which would have provided federal
subsidies to Boeing for a new high-speed airliner.
Britain went ahead with their own version, the Concorde, which
found only a tiny market among the super-rich and stopped flying
in 2003, confirming Proxmire's wisdom. Unlike many supposed fiscal
conservatives, he thought many military programs had costs exceeding
their value, including the C-5A cargo plane and the B-1 bomber.
In his demand
for government economy, he did not spare himself. Ron Tammen,
his longtime chief of staff, recalls that Proxmire returned one-third
of his office-staff allowance to the Treasury each year. "You
can imagine how the staff felt about that," he says dryly.
was a fitness fanatic, running five miles to work each day and
then running back home in the evening, he opposed a $122 million
health club in a new Senate office building. Thanks to votes like
that, he would never have won a popularity contest among his peers.
that most senators could get re-elected without spending a penny,
but he didn't take the chance -- in his last election, he spent
$145.10, down from the $178.75 he lavished on his previous bid.
Much of it went for postage to return campaign contributions,
which he did not accept. Proxmire preferred the cheapest kind
of politicking: He would shake hands till his hands bled, then
start again the next day with bandaged hands.
was a freak of nature. When he decided the Senate should ratify
the international convention against genocide, Proxmire didn't
make one floor speech or 100 -- he made more than 3,000 over 19
years. Finally, with the endorsement of President Reagan, the
Senate shut him up by passing it.
He was a
philosophical anomaly, voting like a Kennedy on civil rights,
the Vietnam War, the environment and the death penalty, but often
expressing skepticism about federal programs. "Government
has gotten too big too fast," he said in 1979. "The
burden of proof ought always to be on those who want to extend
want to extend government have had a far easier time since Proxmire
left the Senate 17 years ago. Everyone would agree they don't
make senators like that anymore. In truth, they never made more
2005 Creators Syndicate