The death of former
Sen. William Proxmire last month inspired a round of tributes
to this maverick Wisconsin senator, the last of the Democratic
Proxmire made a national
name for himself by mocking excessive spending in Congress –
publicly pronouncing a “Golden Fleece” award each
month to commemorate the most absurd example of taxpayer waste.
Over the years, he uncovered a $27,000 Justice Department study
to figure out why prisoners want to get out of prison, a $28,000
Commerce Department grant to find the best beaches in Honolulu,
and a $6,000 Army effort to fund a 17-page study on how to buy
The novelty of the
designation ensured widespread coverage but the real purpose was
to pull back the lid on the sausage-making factory that is Congress
by chronicling the pork-barreling waste of hard-earned taxpayer
dollars. Proxmire's actions did not win him many friends in a
Democratic-dominated Congress, but it did win him the respect
of his constituents, who returned him to the Senate five times.
Proxmire was so broadly supported that he refused to accept any
campaign contributions in his last two Senate races as a symbol
of his independence and aversion to the influence of big money
With the unprecedented
pork-barrel spending to come out of the highly partisan pay-to-play
Congress led by Tom DeLay, Republicans have lost their moral authority
on the issue of fiscal responsibility. With the still growing
tsunami of the Jack Abramoff scandal bearing down on Washington,
now would be a wise time to revive the Golden Fleece Awards.
It is interesting
that Democrats have so far been unable to pick up support despite
the Republican party’s very public problems – the
American people seem reluctant to trust them to deliver more open,
honest and efficient government. That is why a small group of
genuine fiscally-responsible senators from both parties should
begin issuing the Golden Fleece Awards again. Lord knows there
have been plenty of recent excesses to ridicule.
The 2005 federal budget
contained a record 13,997 pork-barrel projects -- an increase
of more than 31 percent over last year, according to the nonpartisan
organization Citizens Against Government Waste. The total cost
of these trips to the trough was $27.3 billion, also a record.
It included $50 million for the construction of an indoor rain
forest in Coralville, Iowa, snuck in through late night appropriations
at the behest of Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman
Charles Grassley. Not to be outdone, the Missouri Historical Society
received $1.54 million for the establishment and maintenance for
the Congressional Archives of Dick Gephardt; while $70,000 was
given to the Paper Industry Hall of Fame and $75,000 to the Greater
Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame.
On the left, a yoga
center in Scranton, Pa., known as the “Inner Harmony Foundation,”
received $350,000 of taxpayer funds, while on the right, a parking
facility at the “University of the Incarnate Word”
in San Antonio, Texas, received $2 million.
Rep. Rick Boucher
of Virginia dispatched a press release bragging about securing
$600,000 to expand horse trails in Scott County, while California
received $2.3 million dollars to add landscaping along the Ronald
Reagan Freeway, an appropriation that the Gipper would have opposed
as a matter of principle in public life.
Humor and irony aside,
there is a serious and sacrilegious aspect to the profligate spending
to come out of this Congress. Politicians are quick to invoke
the name of 9/11 to justify all ambitions, but drawing on much
needed Homeland Security funds to stimulate home county pork barrel
projects is somehow not considered above the pale.
Columbus, Ohio, bought
bulletproof vests for its canine units; Oklahoma received a port
security grant, despite the fact it is landlocked; Grand Forks,
N.D. -- an apparent hotbed for domestic terrorism -- purchased
a $200,000 bomb-dismantling robot, while Santa Clara, Calif.,
bought four Segway vehicles to carry its bomb squad. These are
all comparatively cheap dates compared to the $7.2 million spent
on high-tech Hazmat suits for every Missouri law enforcement officer
in the state.
When lives are at
stake in the war on terror, the fact that scarce funds have been
treated as an opportunity to bring home the bacon exposes the
situational ethics of these beltway boys. It helps explain why
public approval of Congress is already bad and likely to get worse.
One way to resuscitate
broader public faith would be to revive the Golden Fleece Awards.
Maverick Sen. John McCain may be just the man to lead such an
effort -- he already issues a much anticipated litany of pork
barrel projects in an annual speech -- but Democrats should not
be afraid to get in the game as well. The presence of William
Proxmire shows that it is not inconsistent with Democratic DNA
to oppose profligate taxpayer spending.
One final note may
interest those who believe that principled figures from the vital
center can balance the unprincipled excesses of politicians who
have earned their backlash: William Proxmire succeeded Joe McCarthy
as the senator from the state of Wisconsin.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author