As a legend, the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece makes for a difficult metaphor, but as a contemporary pun it has rich possibilities. Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin probably made the best use of it when he launched his monthly ``Golden Fleece' awards in 1975.
Proxmire, though a liberal Democrat, was the congressional paragon of fiscal responsibility and personal rectitude. For 13 years, until his retirement in 1988, Proxmire held a monthly news conference to announce another Golden Fleece awarded to some especially ridiculous or ironic waste of tax money. The money involved was not always a lot. His purpose was not to eliminate waste line by line through exposure, but rather to create a climate in which bureaucrats and chiselers would operate in constant fear of embarrassment.I suppose someone may have likened Proxmire's endless quest for waste to Jason's search for the Golden Fleece of legend. But the operative word was ``fleece,' in its verb sense, as in ``fleecing the taxpayers.'
The value of the Fleeces lay at least partly in the tendency of the publicity to make bureaucrats self-conscious about how they spend our money. Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT computer guru, tells of a federal grant application he and some colleagues submitted in 1975 for a proposal called ``Multimedia Computing.' Apparently in those days ``multimedia' sounded too much like disco club mixtures of loud music and light shows. The grant was approved but on condition that the project be renamed so as to avoid attracting a Golden Fleece award.
There were some classics, including the 1979 Office of Education grant of $219,592 for someone to develop a ``curriculum package' to teach college students how to watch television.
And of course there was the $27,000 study to investigate why prison inmates try to escape. Among the smaller howlers was the 17-page document on how to buy Worcestershire Sauce, produced at government expense of $6,000.
Proxmire once said that his favorite Fleece winner was the $100,000 research grant for a study trying to determine whether sunfish that drank tequila were more aggressive than sunfish that drank gin. The outcome of that research seems to have been lost in the mists of time, but like the Pentagon's $200 hammers, the headline lives on forever.
I've been thinking about Bill Proxmire for a couple of reasons. One was the recent announcement by a group called Taxpayers for Common Sense that it intends to revive the Golden Fleece award as a way of calling attention to its campaign against government waste. As reconstructed by the watchdog group, the Golden Fleece will be a quarterly media event as opposed to Proxmire's monthly press release.
The other reason was that I happened to re-read a 1979 Supreme Court decision called Hutchinson vs. Proxmire, in which the senator inadvertently made constitutional history.
Proxmire, who is 84 and reported to be suffering from Alzheimer's disease, is billed as ``honorary chairman' of Taxpayers for Common Sense. The group's first Fleece press conference featured a videotape of the senator railing about the latest outrage.
The press release quotes him as saying, ``Agency bureaucrats and politicians are relentless in dreaming up ways to waste your money. Now they're doing it again! The Tampa airport rip-off is a textbook example of why we need the Fleece now, more than ever.'
I'm not so sure textbook is the word. The rip-off in question consists of the Federal Aviation Authority ``allowing below-market leases at a 155-acre development near the Tampa International Airport.' The land is owned and managed by the local airport authority, which has a general obligation (as a condition of federal grants) to maximize its return on investment. The FAA says it will try to persuade the locals to raise their rents.
This may represent graft of a high order in Tampa, but as a cautionary tale to dramatize the waste of tax dollars, it just doesn't have legs, as they say. If this first one is representative of what the new Golden Fleece awards are going to be like, I'd say Taxpayers for Common Sense ought to go back to the drawing board.
Surely, the old Bill Proxmire would have known instinctively that the federal taxpayer's interest in the Tampa deal is far too attenuated and ambiguous to have any public relations value.
Twenty-five years ago, the senator launched his Golden Fleece awards by shining the spotlight on a National Science Foundation grant of $84,000 for research on why people fall in love. It was the kind of story guaranteed to make taxpayers laugh or groan. It was the kind of tale that confirmed your worst suspicions about government.
Proxmire and his staff may have missed the mark occasionally. A Michigan psychologist named Ronald Hutchinson felt that was the case when he found his research the subject of a Golden Fleece. The award was given to several federal agencies that had underwritten Hutchinson's study of the emotional behavior of animals - why monkeys get mad, in press release terms.
Hutchinson sued Proxmire and his aide, claiming that national publicity over the Golden Fleece had held him up to ridicule and damaged his professional reputation.
In his defense, Proxmire invoked both the First Amendment and the constitutional ``speech and debate' clause that makes members of Congress immune from suit for anything they say in the course of legislating. Proxmire lost in the Supreme Court in a decision that excludes press releases and other publicity from ``speech and debate' protection. He had to give Hutchinson a public apology and $25,000.
That must have hurt for a senator so frugal that he turned back close to $1 million in office expense money in his last two terms. He also won his last two Senate elections without taking any campaign contributions of any kind. His expenses totaled less than $200 per election - for postage to return unwanted contributions.
I appreciate watchdog groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense. But they are no substitute for the real McCoy, an honest politician willing to live his principles. Bill Proxmire was one of those.