Sen. William Proxmire early foe of earmarks

Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire (left) meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (center) in the Oval Office. The third person is unidentified.
Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire (left) meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson (center) in the Oval Office. The third person is unidentified. Wisconsin Historical Images/Via Flickr Creative Commons License

Republicans have taken up the cry against earmarks — the spending items tacked onto larger bills. But the most famous earmark hawk was a Democrat from Wisconsin. His campaign led to a Supreme Court ruling.

As construction of America's roads and bridges slowed, earmarks in the 1960s and '70s were directed toward university-based research projects. Democratic Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin thought a lot of those projects were wasteful government spending, so he created the “Golden Fleece Awards.”

Senate historian Donald Ritchie says one incensed researcher took the senator to court, even though Proxmire argued that members of Congress are protected under what’s known as the “Speech or Debate Clause.”

In other words, "you cannot be prosecuted for anything you say in Congress. But Proxmire also published a newsletter, which he mailed out to all of his constituents. And the researcher claimed that the newsletter was not covered. And the Supreme Court surprisingly agreed with him," says Ritchie.

Proxmire was fined, and in the end, so were the taxpayers — whose money the senator was trying to protect, but who wound up picking up the tab for Proxmire's fine.

This is the third part in a series looking at the history of congressional earmarks.

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