Tuesday, December 20, 2005

During his long career in politics, Richard Nixon said many 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.”

There are 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.

When Proxmire died Thursday at the age 90, he took with him the reputation of one of the most consistent cheapskates in Washington’s history. 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,” said 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 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?

His frugality didn’t stop with easily lampooned programs. He once infuriated Milwaukee’s mayor 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.

When cost 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.

Nixon had 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, to subsidize Boeing development of 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 Proxmire’s wisdom. Unlike many supposed fiscal conservatives, he thought the costs of many military programs exceeded their value. These included the C-5A cargo plane and the B-1 bomber.

In his demand for government economy, he did not spare himself. His longtime chief of staff Ron Tammen recalls 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.

Though Proxmire was a fitness fanatic, running 5 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.

He said 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.

His discipline 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 in 19 years. Finally, with President Reagan’s endorsement, 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 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 nationally syndicated columnist.

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