Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

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

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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.

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