Federal politicians launch expensive new programs on a regular basis. With all the adding, it would be nice if policymakers also did some subtracting. But trying to cut programs makes you unpopular with your colleagues and special interest groups. As a result, it is rare to find a member of Congress who seriously tries to kill particular programs rather than just complaining that “Washington spends too much.”
One such policymaker who wasn’t afraid to annoy his colleagues was former Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI). Proxmire, who held his Senate seat from 1957 to 1989, was known for his “Golden Fleece Awards” that made public spectacle of wasteful government programs.
A 1971 article in Time discusses Proxmire’s tireless efforts to kill federal funding for the Supersonic Transport (SST) airplane:
Proposals for Government funding of an American supersonic transport date back ten years—the same amount of time Senator William Proxmire has spent opposing it. From 1961 to 1969, Proxmire engaged in five losing campaigns against SST appropriations. He has filibustered and conducted hearings, hammering away in a personal crusade against the “perfectly trivial purpose of developing an SST, seeing how rapidly we can already fly people overseas.” It was the kind of tenacity that has made Proxmire the bane of defense contractors, pork-barreling colleagues and consumer frauds.
Congress sunk more than $700 million on SST subsidies, but in 1971 the program was finally killed and taxpayers had Proxmire to thank.
It’s true that Proxmire’s overall record on spending is mixed. But the point is that a member of Congress who wants to reduce the size of government can have success if he or she is willing to put in the time and effort. It also means being willing to be the skunk at the spending party, and foregoing some of the backslapping and deal-making that is omnipresent on the House and Senate floors.