By Adam Andrzejewski
Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) hadn’t been in Washington long before he observed a great deal of wasteful and often nonsensical government spending.
So, the Democrat from Wisconsin decided to highlight the frivolity by issuing 168 “Golden Fleece” awards every month from 1975 to 1988.
Kicking off what would become "the most successful public relations device in politics today,” according to The Washington Post, Proxmire gave his first award to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 ($420,304 inflation adjusted) on a study on love.
“I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don't want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa,” the senator said in 1975.
The public mostly reviewed his awards with either giggles or face palms.
Also in 1975, Proxmire gave a Golden Fleece award to the Federal Aviation Administration for spending $57,800 ($289,209 inflation adjusted) to study the measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, including the "distance from knee to knee while sitting" and measuring the “length of the buttocks."
In 1978, The National Institute for Mental Health earned a Fleece award for its $97,000 ($400,489 inflation adjusted) study on the activities inside a Peruvian brothel, where the researchers said repeated visits were made in the interests of accuracy.
In 1977, Proxmire gave an award to the Justice Department for spending $27,000 ($119,938 inflation adjusted) to determine “why prisoners want to get out of jail.” In 1979, the Pentagon was recognized for a $3,000 study ($11,123 inflation adjusted) to determine “if members of the military should carry umbrellas in the rain.”
In 1977, the U.S. Postal Service earned a Fleece award by spending more than $34 million ($151 million inflation adjusted) on a Madison Avenue advertising campaign to encourage Americans to write more letters to one another.
The senator also gave an award to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for funding a project from psychologist Harris Rubin that developed "some objective evidence concerning marijuana's effect on sexual arousal.” The study had male pot-smokers watch pornographic films and measure their responses with sensors attached to their genitals, costing $121,000.
Here are a few more examples of the awards Proxmire gave out:
- To the National Science Foundation for spending $103,000 to compare aggressiveness in sun fish that drink tequila versus gin.
- To the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for spending $6,000 ($22,297 inflation adjusted) to show that marijuana is harmful to scuba divers (1979).
- To the National Science Foundation for spending $46,100 ($170,935 inflation adjusted) to study the effect of scantily clad women on Chicago's male drivers (1976).
- To the National Endowment for the Humanities for spending $2,500 ($11,105 inflation adjusted) in Arlington County, Virginia, to study why people are rude, ill-mannered, cheat and lie on the local tennis courts (1977).
- To the Department of Agriculture for spending $90,000 ($333,712 inflation adjusted) on a two-year study titled "Behavioral Determinants of Vegetarianism” (1979).
- To the Department of Education's Institute of Museum Services for giving $25,000 ($81,675 inflation adjusted) to a California zoo to be used in part to send two animal keepers to attend a three-day elephant workshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1980).
When Proxmire retired from the Senate in 1988, the award retired with him.
Then, in 2000, Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog, revived the Golden Fleece award and Proxmire served as an honorary chairman of the organization.
According to their website, the Fleece hasn’t been awarded since 2016.
While Proxmire died in 2005, there’s no doubt that if he were alive today, he would have plenty of fodder in this era of government waste, fraud, corruption and taxpayer abuse.
Taxpayers across America remember and miss the good Democratic senator from Wisconsin.
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