The death of former Sen. William Proxmire last month inspired a round of tributes to this maverick Wisconsin senator, the last of the Democratic budget hawks.
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 Worcestershire sauce.
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 on politics.
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 World” 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.
John P. Avlon is a columnist and associate editor for the New York Sun, former chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics (Random House, 2004). For more about John Avlon, visit his web site, Independent Nation.org