Former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, a political maverick who became Congress' leading scourge of big spending and government waste, has died, a congressional official said Thursday.
The 90-year-old Proxmire, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, had been living at a convalescent home near Baltimore. The official who told The Associated Press of his death insisted on anonymity because no formal announcement had yet been made on behalf of the family.
Over the years, the rebel Democrat developed an image of penny-pinching populism that played well with his homestate voters. But his support of the expensive system of dairy price supports — widely criticized by others as symbolic of government largess gone amuck — won him strong backing from his state's dairy farmers.
The senator's monthly "Golden Fleece" awards, which he began in 1975 to point out what he thought were frivolous expenditures of taxpayers' money, became a Washington tradition.
Proxmire, who also became a familiar face on the television network Sunday news shows, was elected to the Senate in 1957 in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
He was re-elected in 1958 to his first six-year term and was returned to the same post in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982.
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Long before the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law was a twinkle in the eye of lawmakers, and at a time when millions were spent campaigning for Senate seats, Proxmire made a point of accepting no contributions. In 1982 he registered only $145.10 in campaign costs, yet gleaned 64 percent of the vote.
The son of a wealthy physician in Lake Forest, Ill., Proxmire graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School. He served with military intelligence in World War II and later moved to Wisconsin to begin a career in politics.
After three unsuccessful attempts at winning the governorship, Proxmire won McCarthy's vacant seat.
Soon he carved out an independent streak on Capitol Hill by introducing amendments without consulting the party heads, filibustering, and even criticizing the dictates of then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
In that respect, he resembled to a certain degree the style of a latter-day maverick and government spending critic, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
Proxmire remained dogged in his determination to represent his constituents as best he might. Despite his attacks against waste in the Pentagon and elsewhere in government, he remained tireless in his defense of milk price supports.
But he did vote in 1975 to kill the $50 million Kickapoo Dam in his own state, which he contended was a waste of taxpyers' money.
In more than two decades, Proxmire did not travel abroad on Senate business and he returned more than $900,000 from his office allowances to the Treasury.
He repeatedly sparked his colleagues' ire by staunchly opposing salary increases, fighting against such Senate 'perks' as a new gym in the Hart office building and keeping the Senate open all night long — at a cost of thousands of dollars — so he alone could argue against increasing the national debt limit.
Even so, his reputation was that of a workaholic and even his strongest critics found him to be one the the chamber's most disciplined, intelligent and persistent members.