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Farewell William Proxmire

December 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Among his distinctions, William Proxmire holds the record for most consecutive roll call votes cast by a United States senator– more than 10,000 over a 22-year period.

But the Wisconsin Democrat will be remembered best for his one-man crusade against wasteful government spending. Proxmire criticized spending on military and social programs alike. He created the “Golden Fleece Award” to publicize the worst abuses — for instance, a federally-funded research project on why people fall in love.

He also railed against the runaway costs of political campaigns, accepting no contributions during his final run for the Senate in 1982. William Proxmire talked with Roger Mudd in 1988, on the eve of his retirement after 31 years in the Senate.

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Thirty-one years, right.

ROGER MUDD: And so how’s it changed?

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Well, it’s changed enormously because of the size of the government. We were spending, I just checked it out, less than $80 billion a year. Now we’re spending $1 trillion a year, about 12 — more than 12 times as much as we were spending then, even allowing for inflation, which is a great deal more.

The Senate has changed in the number of staff we have. It’s changed in the number of subcommittees we have, the amount of correspondence we get, and it’s changed particularly in the amount of money that people spend in their elections.

ROGER MUDD: So what do you do about those changes? Are those changes –

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Well, I’ve tried to do one thing, Roger. It’s kind of interesting. What I’ve tried to do is to set an example. 1976 when I ran for re-election, I spent $177.77. Then when I ran again in 1982, I spent a total of $145.10. It all came out of my pocket. I didn’t accept any campaign contributions and –

ROGER MUDD: Yeah, but you’re a weird case.

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: I think that two-thirds of the members of the Senate running for reelection could do exactly what I did and win.

ROGER MUDD: You’re kidding.

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: No question about it. Absolutely.

ROGER MUDD: So why doesn’t anybody follow your lead?

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Well because it’s a security blanket. You know, most of incumbents win and win very comfortably. That’s the way they like to win, and it scares strong competition away if you do that.

ROGER MUDD: Do you think the frustrations of Senate life have reached a critical point?

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Well, they haven’t with me. I think it’s true that the schedule is inconvenient. You don’t have control of your life in the sense that you can be sure to go home and have dinner with your family.

ROGER MUDD: Isn’t that really though expecting too much of a public servant, to surrender that life?

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: Well, nobody comes to the Senate with a gun at their head.

ROGER MUDD: That’s true.

WILLIAM PROXMIRE: You know, you spend millions of dollars, some people spend millions of their own money, to get here, and they get here because they think it would be a good job to have. So I don’t think it’s expecting too much.

KWAME HOLMAN: William Proxmire fought a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He died this morning at the age of 90.