William Proxmire (born 1915) was a Democratic senator for Wisconsin for three decades. He was committed to careful government spending, budgetary restraint, and consumer protection.
William Proxmire was born on November 11, 1915, in Lake Forest, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. His father was a surgeon and served as chief of staff of Lake Forest Hospital. William spent his high school years in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, at the Hill Preparatory School where he was at the head of his class academically and considered to be the "biggest grind" by his fellow students. His success there paved the way for his undergraduate years at Yale University, where, in addition to graduating with a B.A. in English in 1938, he boxed and played football.
Proxmire went on to Harvard Business School where he took his M.B.A. in 1940. Afterwards, he joined the investment firm of J. P. Morgan & Co. but left six months later to join the U.S. Army. He served in the intelligence branch of the army until the end of the war. By 1948 he had received a M.P.A. from Harvard's Graduate School of Public Administration. It was during this second tour at Harvard that Proxmire became a Democrat, much to his father's chagrin.
Although he taught for a time at Harvard and worked again for J. P. Morgan & Co. in New York, Proxmire was eager to begin a career in politics. He chose to settle in Wisconsin, taking a job as a political and labor reporter on a newspaper in the state's capital, Madison. Less than a year later Proxmire announced his candidacy for the Wisconsin State Assembly, and he won his first election that November. To win, he established a political strategy which he followed ever after: a low budget, press-the-flesh campaign involving long hours and as much personal contact with voters as possible. As an assemblyman Proxmire started what became a life-long interest in careful spending, budgetary restraint, and consumer protection. Deciding against reelection in 1952, Proxmire ran for governor three successive times—in 1952, 1954, and 1956. He lost all three times, and it looked as if his political career had come to an end.
The death of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1957, however, brought Proxmire into the special election held to fill the seat for the balance of the late senator's term. Having won the Democratic primary, Proxmire faced Walter Kohler, a man who had defeated him twice for the governorship. Although considered the underdog, Proxmire decisively defeated Kohler in the special election and then in 1958 won election to his first full term in the U.S. Senate. He served in that body for five terms, winning reelection in 1982 with 64 percent of the vote.
Proxmire's years as a senator were characterized by an independent, often idiosyncratic, stance. In his first term he quickly came up against the strong, well-organized Democratic leadership of Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn. His attacks on these two congressional leaders as well as his opposition to major legislation proposed by President John F. Kennedy marked him early on as a legislator of independent mind. It was a role he continued to play, neither hesitating to vote against presidential appointments (in 1961 he opposed the nomination of John Connally as secretary of the navy and in 1981 he opposed the nomination of William French Smith as attorney-general) nor to stage filibusters in an attempt to block legislation (in 1961, a 19-hour filibuster; in 1981, a 16-hour one).
Proxmire was the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and much of his influence stemmed from his concern for economy in government spending. He uncovered government waste and cost overruns in nearly all branches of government, as several of his books, including Report from Wasteland: America's Military-Industrial Complex (1970) and Uncle Sam: The Last of the Bigtime Spenders (1972), testify. To highlight government practices that were costing taxpayers millions of dollars, Proxmire established a monthly "Golden Fleece" award in 1975 for "the biggest or most ridiculous or most ironic example of government waste." The awards received a great deal of publicity, but critics thought they diverted attention from larger, more substantial issues.
The flip side of Proxmire's concern for how tax dollars were spent was his interest in consumer protection. As chairman and later ranking minority member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Proxmire kept a close watch on the consumer credit industry and criticized the easy loan practices of the nation's banks. Proxmire sponsored the Consumer Credit Protection Act, which required lenders to inform borrowers of finance charges in writing, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, which granted people the right to correct personal credit files maintained by credit agencies.
Proxmire's life revolved around the Senate. His energies were fully focused on business there and his colleagues attested to his grasp of the issues and the careful research he brought to his positions. He kept in close touch with his Wisconsin constituents and did not miss a rollcall between 1966 and 1985. He has been recognized as a master of campaigning and of free publicity, and, if not always the most liked, one of the most widely imitated members of the Senate. Asked to explain the intensity and energy with which he concentrated on his job, Proxmire once said, "Politics is my hobby. I eat, breathe, and sleep politics." Nevertheless, in 1987, citing his age, he announced that he would not seek reelection.
After retiring from the U.S. Senate in 1988, Proxmire continued to stir up publicity by writing a twice-weekly column for the United Feature Syndicate, focusing on national and international economic issues. At least once a month, Proxmire gives his "Golden Fleece Award" to the person or organization that is most wasteful of federal funds. Upon leaving the Senate and starting his column, Proxmire said "I started as a newspaper reporter, and after 31 years in the U.S. senate, I'm coming home to my first love at last. There's so much to complain about, apologize for, and brag about in this country. I can't wait to write about it."
William Proxmire has been the subject of a biography, Proxmire by Jay Sykes (1972), and of several magazine articles, including those in the Atlantic (December 1970) and the New York Times Magazine (April 1971 and May 1978). For more material see the yearly indexes of Facts on File. □
[NOVEMBER 11, 1915–]
For nineteen of his thirty-one years as a U.S. senator, William Proxmire made repeated and frequent speeches calling for Senate ratification of the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention. Representing Wisconsin in the Senate from 1957 to 1989, Senator Proxmire began his prolonged campaign for the Convention in January 1967 at the urging of Milwaukee lawyer Bruno Bitker (1899–1984). Calling the Senate's failure to approve the treaty a "national shame," Proxmire committed himself to "speak day after day in this body to remind the Senate of our failure to act and of the necessity for prompt action" (Power, 2002, p. 79). From this point forward he took a personal responsibility for this issue and persisted for two decades until he prevailed.
As a U.S. senator, William ("Bill") Proxmire was best known for his work on the Senate Banking and Appropriations Committees. Over the years he gained a reputation as an outspoken debater with tenacious personal and political commitments. Most of all, Proxmire was known for attacking wasteful and frivolous government spending. Beginning in 1974 he awarded a monthly "golden fleece" award to little-known budget items, which he considered as a "wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers' money." In his personal life, Proxmire began each day with a four-mile run, and authored a 1973 book on health and fitness. To set an example of frugality, his Capital Hill office regularly returned over one-third of its allotments to the federal budget. Over time the senator's tenacity took the form of never missing Senate votes. He eventually held the record of 10,000 consecutive votes over a 22-year period. This approach to his life and work was needed to win Senate passage of the Genocide Convention.
Treaty ratification requires the votes of two-thirds of senators for approval. Proxmire and his allies Jacob Javits and Claiborne Pell encountered tireless opposition to ratification from a minority led by Sam Irvin and later Jesse Helms. To keep this issue constantly before the Senate, Proxmire gave 3,211 speeches calling for ratification of the Convention, an average of 168 each year. The speeches were pointed reminders to his colleagues made during the Senate's "Morning Hour" before the chamber began scheduled business. More expert in domestic issues than foreign policy, what motivated Proxmire to persist in this effort was his service during World War II, his disdain for the practice of killing legislation in committee without a vote, and daily headlines from Biafra, Bangladesh, Uganda, Kampuchea, and elsewhere bringing news of atrocities and possible genocide.
Finally, on February 19, 1986, the Senate approved the Convention by a vote of 86 to 11, but only with reservations and understandings that Proxmire reluctantly agreed to accept. The implementing legislation became known as "The Proxmire Act," despite the senator's disapproval of the practice of naming legislation for sponsors. On November 25, 1988, only weeks before the fortieth anniversary of the Convention's 1948 approval by the UN General Assembly, the United States deposited instruments of ratification at the UN headquarters. Soon after this, Proxmire retired from the Senate. He announced his treatment for Alzheimer's disease in 1998.
SEE ALSO Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Korey, William (1998). NGO's and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Curious Grapevine. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Power, Samantha (2002). A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.
James T. Fussell