McCarthy’s Senate successor created ‘Golden Fleece’ award

Published 10:25 am Monday, December 19, 2005

By Staff
Thirty years ago, in 1975, maverick Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire created headline-grabbing “Golden Fleece” awards to spotlight his choices for frivolous wastes of taxpayer money.
Proxmire, 90, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died early Dec. 15 at a convalescent home in Maryland.
Proxmire, generally regarded as a liberal Democrat at the outset of his career, when he won a 1957 special election to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Joseph McCarthy's death, was a colorful and complex character, to be sure.
Despite his well-cultivated image for penny-pinching populism, Proxmire was also an adept politician who curried favor with his dairy state voters by supporting a milk price support system that for others symbolized government largess run amok as much as Golden Fleece recipients.
Proxmire, elected in 1958 to his first full six-year term, won re-election in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982.
His independent streak is reminiscent of a contemporary spending critic, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, in the way he butted heads with his own party, whether introducing amendments without consulting the leadership or criticizing Lyndon B. Johnson, a future president who was then majority leader.
In an era before campaign finance reform became an issue, Proxmire garnered 64 percent of the 1982 vote with a campaign he reported cost all of $145.10.
Proxmire's father was a wealthy doctor in Lake Forest, Ill.
He graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School. He served in military intelligence during World War II and only went to Wisconsin to enter politics, trying unsuccessfully for governor three times before gaining a Senate seat.
In more than two decades, Proxmire did not travel abroad on the junkets he criticized. He returned to the Treasury more than $900,000 in office allowances. He incurred his colleagues' ire by battling salary increases and Senate “perks” such as a new gym.
He advocated a balanced budget and held the longest unbroken record in Senate history for roll-call votes.
Though he bashed Pentagon cost overruns, Proxmire supported a strong defense.
As head of the Senate Banking Committee he reconsidered his initial opposition to New York City's federal bailout and supported it.
Congress can never have enough independent thinkers like Proxmire.