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Proxmire's voice needed in current budget battle

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Proxmire's voice needed in current budget battle
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

It's too bad the late Bill Proxmire isn't alive to join the coming battle over the federal budget.

Proxmire, a Democrat, served 32 years in the U.S. Senate from 1957 to 1989. He is best-remembered as a critic of federal spending and how Congress and the special interests interact. His criticisms angered many and often made him seem an outsider.

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Decades later, Proxmire is remembered for the "Golden Fleece" awards he assigned to what he thought were excessive and/or wasteful spending. Academic research grants and military spending were frequent targets.

The Golden Fleece awards were press releases that detailed the spending. The first, awarded in 1976, was an $84,000 National Science Foundation award to study why people fell in love.

Proxmire argued that scientists should stay out of the issue, leaving the issue of people falling in love to Irving Berlin and Ann Landers. Proxmire was quick to face criticism from the academic community.

When he questioned a grant to study why monkeys and humans clench their teeth, it produced a lawsuit that went the whole way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the case was dismissed.

This type of Golden Fleece press releases drew substantial attention, especially in Wisconsin newspapers. But Proxmire took on bigger spending issues that continue today as America moves to a "fiscal cliff" at the end of September.

Proxmire argued that the military had a bloated bureaucracy. In the middle 1970s Proxmire noted that there were nearly 1 million civilians at work for the military. A strong military is good, but it needs to be one that is lean and mean, he argued.

Few would disagree with that position, especially with the demise of the Soviet Union, but many members of Congress have military bases in their states and congressional districts. The military spending becomes an issue of the local economy and jobs.

Proxmire also was critical of the military retirement system that allowed half pensions after 20 years of service. One factor in the pensions is the rank at the time of retirement. He questioned military rank promotions near retirement.

The senator made such a reputation as a spending critic that some suggested that he saw nothing good in the federal government. At a stop in Appleton one citizen asked, "Isn't there anything they've done right since you became a senator?"

But there was another side to Proxmire. He hailed the success of the military even while he fought what he saw was "waste." Technological gains by the military met his praise.

"Staying on top and ahead is not easy and it's not cheap," he once wrote. "Our military has succeeded in doing that and deserves full credit for it."

Perhaps his highest praise went to Medicare and Medicaid. These programs may have their faults but they made America a "sounder, more just and more compassionate country" he said. Medicare has helped increase longevity and Medicaid has helped the poverty stricken to survive, he said.

Proxmire, the budget crusader, would provide a valuable voice as next month's budget battle unfolds in Washington. The key issue there remains Obamacare which is aimed at helping all citizens get health insurance and improving preventive care.

Republicans want to kill it, saying it is too expensive. Proxmire probably would ask Republicans what their alternative is.

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