Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

There are few left in Washington with the will to rein in the politicians' extravagance

Share

Once upon a time, some people on Capitol Hill really did have a sense of shame about the place. The thought came to mind with the death at 90 last week of William Proxmire, who represented Wisconsin in the Senate for more than three decades. He was a Democrat who took over the seat vacated by the disgraced Joseph McCarthy of witch-hunt fame. Proxmire was another one-off - but in the more benign guise of an indefatigable guardian of the public purse.

He winkled out not Communist moles but wasteful spending by the government. Over 31 years in Congress, he made a lot of news and produced a lot of laughs. In the end, however, he admitted defeat. "I have spent my career trying to get Congressmen to spend the people's money as if it were their own. But I have failed," Proxmire said as he retired in 1989. But even he could not have then imagined the waste, the junketing and, yes, the downright corruption that mark the place today.

Proxmire is best remembered for the Golden Fleece awards he bestowed each month on an especially egregious example of wasteful spending. They were many, and frequently hilarious. Take the top three listed by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense: $6,000 allocated in 1981 by the Department of the Army to fund a 17-page study on how to buy Worcester sauce; the $20,000 spent by the Commerce Department the same year on an 800ft replica of the Great Wall of China in Bedford, Indiana; and (the all-time winner) the $1m invested by the Alcohol Research Institute in a 1975 project to find out if drunken fish were more aggressive than sober ones.

But even that is fish feed compared to the gems of 2005, none more brilliant than the $232m earmarked for a "Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska", linking the mainland to an island inhabited by 50 people. Someone dared to suggest the money would be better spent on repairing the bridge section of Interstate 10 near New Orleans that had been wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. The proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. In the end the bridge project was grudgingly shelved - but Alaska was allowed to keep the money.

Or take campaign spending, which Proxmire fought in vain to curb. These days the average Senate campaign costs $10m. The summit of extravagance was the 2004 race in South Dakota, which cost the two major parties $40m - $100 for each of the 391,000 people who bothered to vote. In his final re-election campaign in 1982, Proxmire refused to accept any contributions whatsoever, spending just $145 in filing fees. He still won easily.

In Washington he was no less of an exception. He drove his colleagues mad by opposing the salary increases they voted themselves. Over the years he handed back to the Treasury almost $1m in unused office allowances. For two decades, he never once set foot outside the country on those junkets so beloved of today's US politicians. Proxmire argued that his constituents wanted him to stay at home and attend to their interests.

Contrast this with the "fact-finding" missions by the likes of Tom DeLay, the mighty House majority leader who enjoyed a spot of golf at St Andrews paid for by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. These fact-finding trips are so numerous, someone once joked, that there aren't enough facts to go round. But what goes around comes around. Currently half a dozen politicians are busy minimising their ties with the disgraced and indicted Abramoff.

And if you want outright corruption - well, step forward Randy "Duke" Cunningham, former San Diego congressman, who faces a decade in prison for taking $2.4m in bribes from defence contractors.

The House, technically, does have an ethics committee. But the 10-person panel fell foul of the DeLay machine and virtually shut down for a year. Maybe now that DeLay has come to grief, the Ethics Committee will start to function again. But one shudders to think what William Proxmire would have made of it all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the paraphernalia of a practised burglar – screwdrivers, gloves, children

Guy Keleny
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?