The Proxmire Model for Politicians

These are political election times and candidates are looking for formulas that work with the voters and count with the money backs at the same time. There is a feeling among too many incumbents and challengers that public mood and private money have to be captured simultaneously to win at the polls.

The Proxmire model deserves more attention and diffusion. to change the current, expedient political routine. William Proxmire, D-Wis., I venture to say, could be elected and• re-elected from any state in the country. He has about the most consistently progressive voting record in the U.S. Senate on consumer, environment, civil rights and energy issues. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, his criticisms of over-reaching or callous banking practices have not endeared him to the powerful banking lobby which controls many of the committee’s members.

Recurrently, Proxmire has exposed waste and corruption by the Pentagon and the military contractors who view him with more than mild disapproval. In his drive for efficient government, he even has gone into his home state to directly tell outraged communities of his opposition to their favorite dam construction project. He led the successful fight in the  Senate to block the taxpayer subsidy for the civiliansupersonic transport.

Yet given all this and more, Proxmire is virtually unbeatable. In 1976, he won all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, receiving against his hapless Republican opponent 73 percent of the vote. He declined all campaign contributions that year and spent out of his pocket a total of $177 to get re-elected.

What is Proxmire’s secret? First his style is not that of the stereotyped politician. He speaks like a human being rather than intoning like a politician. When his Senate office is closed for the day, the answering service, in the voice of “Hello, this is Bill Proxmire,” tells you to leave a message. Most senators use their secretary for this purpose. He runs 5 miles every day to and from his Senate office after doing 100 push-ups. He literally ran throughout Wisconsin during his 1976 campaign.

Second, his activity is without match in the Senate. While other senators are on vacations during the year, Proxmire is holding congressional hearings on some hot economic topic or inquiry. A peerless stay-on-the-job senator, Proxmire has the historical record in the Senate for having answered more than 6,500 roll call votes in a row. Compared with this Gehrig-like stamina, the average senator would have missed about 500 of these votes over the years.

In the past five years, Proxmire has worked a full day each as a dairy farmer, pea packer, banker, haberdasher, milk trucker, construction worker and a packing house carcass pusher. He also spent a day as a garbage collector in Fond du Lac, Wis., and in Brooklyn, N.Y., to compare costs and efficiencies. To sense what job hazards are like, he spent a memorable day working at a foundry and, as is his custom, described the experience (“ear-splitting noise”) to readers of his newsletter. He even worked at a federal housing office in Milwaukee, Wis.–a program for which he has major. responsibility in Congress.

Of course, all this activity makes news, most of it favorable. Proxmire’s office issues a stream of press releases to the local and national media. But usually it is important or useful information and reflects both the conviction and energy of the senator rather than merely the imagination of an astute press agent.

Although he is a burr under the saddle of many a special-interest senator, Proxmire has been known to represent special interests in his state such as the dairy industry or American Motors Corp. He was chided for his latter advocacy by backers of the Chrysler loan guarantee which he opposed. Nor does he seem to go all out on strongly held beliefs on the Senate floor as he once did. For instance, he fought the SST all the way in the early ’70s while he voted against but did not lead the fight against presidential nominations or the Chrysler bail-out in the past few years.

Against his general performance, these are not serious lapses in his duties. One is induced, by his voting and electoral appeal, to imagine the quality of the Congress if his colleagues adopted his model. It is not a political snakeroot oil concoction. It simply is keeping in mind that being in the Senate is a full-time job, that it means representing consumers, workers, tenants and other unorganized large numbers of Americans and that all this can be done with an even temperament, a regular courtesy and a command of the Subject matter.

Voters outside of Wisconsin would do well to study his record and strategy, then ask their members of Congress what their excuse is for nesting with corporate lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

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