|United States Senator|
August 28, 1957 – January 3, 1989
|Preceded by||Joseph McCarthy|
|Succeeded by||Herb Kohl|
|Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly|
from the Dane County 2nd district
January 10, 1951 – January 13, 1953
|Preceded by||John M. Blaska|
|Succeeded by||Ervin M. Bruner|
Edward William Proxmire
November 11, 1915
Lake Forest, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||December 15, 2005 (aged 90)|
Sykesville, Maryland, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Elsie Stillman Rockefeller (1946–1955)|
Ellen Hodges Sawall (1956–2005)
|Education||Yale University (BA)|
Harvard University (MBA, MPA)
|Branch/service||United States Army|
|Years of service||1941–1946|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
Edward William Proxmire (November 11, 1915 – December 15, 2005) was an American politician. A member of the Democratic Party, he served as a United States Senator from Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989. He holds the record for being the longest-serving Senator from Wisconsin.
Proxmire was a member of the Senate Banking Committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the Joint Economic Committee. In all of them he was an aggressive critic of wasteful government spending. On the Joint Economic Committee, he exposed numerous instances of wasteful spending on military programs such as the C-5 aircraft and the F-16 fighter, as well as other government programs such as the development of a supersonic transport airplane (SST).
The son of Dr. Theodore Stanley Proxmire, a Chicago-area surgeon, and Adele (Flanigan) Proxmire, Edward William Proxmire was born in Lake Forest, Illinois, on November 11, 1915. He later used "William" rather than "Edward" out of admiration for actor William S. Hart. He graduated from The Hill School (in Pottstown, Pennsylvania) in 1933, Yale University in 1938 (B.A.), Harvard Business School in 1940 (M.B.A.), and Harvard Graduate School of Public Administration in 1948 (M.P.A.). While at Yale, Proxmire joined the Chi Psi fraternity. During 1940 and 1941 Proxmire was a student clerk at J.P. Morgan & Co. and studied public speaking at Columbia University.
During World War II he joined the United States Army as a private, and advanced through the ranks to master sergeant. Proxmire later received a commission in the Military Intelligence branch. Most of his service involved counterintelligence work in the Chicago area, where members of his unit investigated individuals suspected of subversive activity. He served from 1941 to 1946, and was discharged as a first lieutenant. While in the Army, Proxmire also continued to study public speaking at Northwestern University. After discharge, he was an executive trainee at J. P. Morgan before returning to Harvard.
After getting his second master's degree while working as a teaching fellow at Harvard, Proxmire moved to Wisconsin to be a reporter for The Capital Times in Madison and to advance his political career in a favorable state. "They fired me after I'd been there seven months, for labor activities and impertinence," he once said. When he ran successfully for the state legislature in 1950, Proxmire was working as the business manager of the Union Labor News, a publication of the Madison Federation of Labor.
Wisconsin State Assembly
Proxmire served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1951 to 1953. During his Assembly service, Proxmire was one of few members who maintained a perfect attendance record, a trait that he later continued in the U.S. Senate. While in the Assembly, he was employed as president of Artcraft Press of Waterloo. Proxmire was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956.
United States Senator
In August 1957, Proxmire won the special election to fill the remainder of the U.S. Senate term vacated by the May 2, 1957, death of Joseph McCarthy. After assuming his seat, Proxmire did not pay the customary tribute to his predecessor, stating instead that McCarthy was a "disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America".
Proxmire was reelected in 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982 by wide margins, including 71 percent of the vote in 1970, 73 percent in 1976 and 65 percent in 1982. In each of his last two campaigns, Proxmire refused contributions and spent less than $200 out of his own pocket — to cover the expenses related to filing re-election paperwork and mailing back unsolicited contributions. He was an early advocate of campaign finance reform. Throughout his Senate career, Proxmire also refused to accept reimbursements for travel expenses related to his official duties.
Consecutive roll call votes
Proxmire holds the U.S. Senate record for consecutive roll call votes cast: 10,252 between April 20, 1966, and October 18, 1988. In doing so, he surpassed the previous record of 2,941 which was held by Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. In January 2016, Chuck Grassley broke Proxmire's record for longest amount of time between missed votes, but during his time without missing a roll call, Grassley had cast about 3,000 fewer votes than Proxmire.
Proxmire served as the Chair of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989. During his first tenure in this position, Proxmire was instrumental in devising the financial plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in 1976–77. Proxmire's subcommittee memberships included Financial Institutions, Housing and Urban Affairs, and International Finance and Monetary Policy.
In addition to his work on the Banking committee, Proxmire rose through seniority to become a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and was active on several subcommittees, including Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Related Agencies, and Postal Service and Related Agencies.
Issue positions and legislation
In October 1961, Proxmire issued a statement opposing a planned $22 million renovation of the United States Capitol, arguing that a "large part of the space created by the extension" would be used "to house private hideaway offices" for 23 senators. Proxmire continued to oppose the renovation, and the debate continued until the project was completed in the early 1970s.
In March 1964, Proxmire charged that political concerns, not national defense needs were keeping too many naval shipyards open, resulting in a waste of federal funds: "On the basis of every statistical study, both by the Navy and independent groups. private shipyards can build, repair or modernize five ships for the same number of dollars needed to turn out four ships in navy shipyards." Proxmire unsuccessfully favored proposals that awarded contracts to the lowest bidder in order to save money and close unneeded facilities, and pointed out that "the advantages of this free enterprise approach" had been recognized by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense and a former corporate chief executive officer.
From 1967 until 1986, Proxmire gave daily speeches noting the necessity of ratifying The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He gave this speech every day that the Senate was in session for 20 years, for a total of 3,211 times. On February 11, 1986 the U.S. Senate ratified the convention.
In March 1969, Proxmire introduced legislation that would have regulated the credit life and disability insurance industries. He declared that Americans were being overcharged $220 million a year.
Proxmire was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War who frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. On the Senate Armed Services Committee he exposed wasteful military spending and was instrumental in blocking military pork barrel projects. Despite his support of budgetary restraint, he regularly sided with dairy interests and supported dairy price supports.
Proxmire was head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport and particularly opposed to space exploration, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA's budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; "it's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone .... I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy". Proxmire introduced an amendment into the 1982 NASA budget that effectively terminated NASA's nascent SETI efforts before a similar amendment to the 1994 budget, by Senator Richard Bryan, terminated NASA's SETI efforts for good. With these positions Proxmire drew the enmity of many space advocates and science fiction fandom. Arthur C. Clarke attacked Proxmire in his short story "Death and the Senator" (1960). Later, the short story "The Return of William Proxmire" (1989) by Larry Niven and the novel Fallen Angels (1991), written by Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael F. Flynn, were directed against the senator.
In May 1971, Proxmire charged the Food and Drug Administration with violating federal law through authorizing residues of a cancer‐inducing hormone to come into contact with consumers, asserting the move was in violation of the Delaney amendment and called for an immediate ban on DES.
In September 1971, Proxmire asserted the safety margin of the C‐5A cargo plane was threatened in spite of doubling costs and charged the US Air Force with not disclosing information on the costs to Congress.
In 1972 Proxmire urged the Air Force to recall to General John D. Lavelle to active duty for the purpose of court-martial. Lavelle had been forced to retire as a major general due to alleged misconduct concerning Vietnam War bombing missions while he served as commander of Seventh Air Force. Lavelle was not recalled or court-martialed, and in 2007 newly declassified and released information exonerated Lavelle by showing that President Richard M. Nixon had authorized the bombing missions.
In November 1973, after Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned and Robert Bork took over as Acting Attorney General, Proxmire wrote in a letter that Bork was serving illegally as Acting Attorney General since thirty days had passed with him being in office and not having a confirmation by the Senate, saying that any actions taken by Bork in the period following the thirty days passing could be met by challenge and called on President Nixon to rectify the situation. Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dixon Jr. disputed Proxmire's claim, saying that similar occurrences of Acting Attorneys General that went over 30 days without Senate confirmations had happened six times prior.
In January 1978, President Carter wrote Proxmire on the responsibilities of New York City denizens in his plan to have the city avoid bankruptcy. In April, after New York Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jacob Javits introduced a Carter administration bill that would provide New York City with $2 billion in loan guarantees, Javits stated he did not believe Proxmire would try killing the measure by bottling it up in committee. In May, Proxmire announced his willingness to hold hearings on continued federal aid to New York City prior to municipal labor unions having their contracts negotiated and the Senate Banking Committee would wait as long as possible to secure information on the labor settlement's impact. Proxmire stated that they were not aware of when the labor contracts would reach a settlement and the potentially years long process could prevent the Senate Banking Committee from being able to take any action. June 1978 had four days of scheduled hearings by the Senate Banking Committee on continued federal aid to New York City. After the June 6 hearing, Proxmire stated he had maintained an open mind in spite of leaning toward opposition, a shift from his prior position of unwavering disagreement with continued aid and that he was not against favorable vote on the legislation by the Banking Committee that would authorize the remainder of the Senate to consider the subject, admitting that the committee was split in the opinions of its members. In days following, Proxmire told reporters that the labor bill's continued filibuster made the chances of the Senate acting on the legislation by the end of the month unlikely given that unanimous consent was required to end the filibuster. Later that month, along with Texas Republican John Tower and Utah Republican Jake Garn, Proxmire was one of three senators who voted against reporting out the bill authorizing $1.5 billion of long‐term loan guarantees for New York City, Proxmire adding that he believed the measure would pass through the Senate in a similar manner to the panel vote.
In February 1978, after President Carter nominated G. William Miller for Chair of the Federal Reserve, Proxmire was noted to be a reliable source of contention, though the latter predicted from the start of his confirmation process that Miller would meet little opposition. At the end of the month, eleven members of the Senate Banking Committee pressed for a confirmation of Miller as Federal Reserve Chair, a motion Proxmire rejected while scheduling the vote for another day and admitting the nomination would be easily confirmed by the panel and full chamber. On March 2, Proxmire cast the sole dissenting vote against the Miller nomination, calling him unqualified for the office as he was without experience in economic or monetary affairs while acknowledging Miller's business success. Proxmire was joined by ranking Republican Edward W. Brooke in indicating the Carter administration had influenced members of the panel to hasten the confirmation process.
In February 1978, Proxmire said the Navy and Air Force had spent "at least $42,000 in the last year transporting 3,500 local community leaders to 31 military bases to lobby for military programs" and labeled these trips an example of local citizens being lobbied for military programs. Proxmire added that these trips had included the Air Force favoring production of the B‐1 bomber and gave an estimate cost of 42,000 as the Air Force had turned down specifying the price.
In February 1979, Proxmire sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal calling on the Treasury Department to withhold federal loan guarantees from New York City until incumbent Mayor Ed Koch agreed to larger cuts in the budget for the following year, charging the budgetary assumptions of the city as being too reliant on federal aid increases. In March, Proxmire sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chair Miller regarding his reservations on the establishment of a free trade zone to allow international banking activity in New York City and advocated for the proposal first being submitted to Congress as opposed to unilateral regulatory action.
Proxmire was the only senator to vote against the August 1979 nomination of G. William Miller as United States Treasury Secretary, saying his vote against Miller was based on the latter's "unwillingness to open a full‐scale investigation of allegations that Textron, the company he once headed, paid bribes to numerous foreign officials while Mr. Miller was in charge". Proxmire acknowledged a lack of evidence to show that Miller was personally involved in bribes.
In October 1979, Proxmire wrote head of the General Accounting Office Elmer B. Staats to request the GAO investigate claims that the Department of Housing and Urban Development authorized the P.I. Properties to steal funds from the federal government and low income tenants. The same day, Proxmire delivered a speech on the Senate floor condemning the failure of the Housing and Urban Development Department to act on recommendation from staff members to terminate funding for the P.I. Properties' 285-unit project at 14th and Clifton Streets in Washington, DC.
Golden Fleece Award
Proxmire was noted for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which was presented monthly between 1975 and 1988, in order to focus media attention on projects Proxmire viewed as self-serving and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. Winners of the Golden Fleece Award included governmental organizations like the United States Department of Defense, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service.
The first Golden Fleece Award was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were awarded to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel ("The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy," reported The New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying "the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the 'length of the buttocks.'"
Proxmire's critics claimed that some of his Golden Fleece awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs. In some circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in "the project has been proxmired". In 1987, Stewart Brand accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several cancelled projects, including SETI.
It is widely, though incorrectly, believed that Proxmire gave the award to Edward F. Knipling for his study of the sex life of the screwworm fly, the results of which were used to create sterile screwworms that were released into the wild and eliminated this major cattle parasite from North and Central America, which reduced the cost of beef and dairy products across the globe. In fact, there is no evidence for this claim in the Proxmire papers held by the Wisconsin Historical Society. In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded research on the sex life of the screwworm fly took place in the 1930s through 1950s, long before the Golden Fleece era of the 1970s and 80s, when Proxmire largely targeted contemporary research.
One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, Ronald Hutchinson, sued Proxmire for defamation in 1976. Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that clause does not immunize members of Congress from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings (Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)). The case was eventually settled out of court.
In 1946, Proxmire married Elsie Stillman Rockefeller, a great-granddaughter of William Rockefeller, brother and partner of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. They had two children, a son, Theodore, and a daughter, Elsie Stillman (Proxmire) Zwerner. Elsie Proxmire received an uncontested divorce in 1955.
Known for his devotion to personal fitness, which included jogging and push-ups, Proxmire earned the moniker "Push Up". In 1973, he published a book about staying in shape, entitled You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan. After leaving Congress, Proxmire had an office in the Library of Congress.
Proxmire had Alzheimer's disease. He died on December 15, 2005, in a nursing home in Sykesville, Maryland, where he had lived for more than four years. He was buried at Lake Forest Cemetery in Lake Forest, Illinois.
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It's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone. As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA's appropriations, I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy...
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- "Proxmire Urges Ban On Cattle Hormone". The New York Times. May 26, 1971.
- "Proxmire Calls for Recall Of C‐5A Planes as Unsafe". The New York Times. September 21, 1971.
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- "Carter Calls for Help to New York by 'Local Parties'". The New York Times. January 19, 1978.
- "Two New York Senators Introduce City-Aid Bill". The New York Times. April 13, 1978.
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- Dembart, Lee (June 13, 1978). "New York City Banks and Unions Decline to Pledge Further Loans". The New York Times.
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- "Iranian Payment Is Minimized". The New York Times. February 24, 1978.
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- "Senate Confirms Miller and Volcker". The New York Times. August 3, 1979.
- "Proxmire Urges Probe of HUD at Clifton Terrace". Washington Post. November 1, 1979.
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- Weil, Martin (August 4, 2015). "Ellen Proxmire, a senator's wife and event planner in D.C., dies at 90". The Washington Post. Washington, DC.
- "Tribute to Larry Young, Recipient of William Proxmire Lifetime Achievement Award" (PDF). Accfsl.org. Hanover, MD: American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers. May 10, 2018. p. 3.
- Proxmire, William (1975). You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire's Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan. New York, NY: Touchstone. p. Title. ISBN 978-0-6712-1991-8.
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- Senator William Proxmire Collections | Wisconsin Historical Society
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Severo, Richard (December 16, 2005). "William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90". The New York Times.
- "As senator, a tenacious Proxmire had a good run", The Boston Globe
- William Proxmire at Find a Grave