Senate could use Proxmire's frugal way

December 21, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- 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 Mr. Proxmire were re-elected, Mr. Nixon told voters, "You will be in for a wild spending binge by radical Democrats drunk with visions of votes."

When Mr. Proxmire died Thursday at 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.

Critics 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?

President Richard Nixon had cause to wish Mr. 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.

France and 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 Mr. 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 didn't spare himself. Ron Tammen, his longtime chief of staff, recalls that Mr. 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.

He said that most senators could get re-elected without spending a penny, but he didn't take the chance. In his final 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. Mr. Proxmire preferred the cheapest kind of politicking: He would shake hands till his hands bled, then start again the next day with bandaged hands.

His discipline was a freak of nature. When he decided the Senate should ratify the international convention against genocide, Mr. Proxmire didn't make one floor speech, or 100; he made more than 3,000, over 19 years. Finally, with the endorsement of President Ronald 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 government."

Those who want to extend government have had a far easier time since Mr. Proxmire left the Senate 17 years ago. Everyone would agree they don't make senators like that anymore. In truth, they never made more than one.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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