William Lewis Proxmire (November 11, 1915 - December 15, 2005) was a member of the Democratic Party who served in the United States Senate for the state of Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989. He graduated from The Hill School in 1933, Yale University in 1938, Harvard Business School in 1940, and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1948. During World War II he served as a member of the Military Intelligence Service. He married Elsie Rockefeller, a great-granddaughter of William Rockefeller, brother and partner of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. They had two children, Theodore, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and Elsie Proxmire Zwerner, of Scottsdale, Arizona. Elsie Proxmire received an uncontested divorce in 1955.
In 1956, Proxmire married Ellen Hodges Sawall, who brought two children of her own to the marriage, Mary Ellen Poulos, now of Milwaukee, and Jan Licht, now of Naperville, Illinois. Together, the couple had two sons, William, who died in infancy, and Douglas, who lives in McLean, Virginia. Nine grandchildren survive Proxmire.
Proxmire served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1951 to 1952 and was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1952, 1954 and 1956. Senator Proxmire was elected to fill the remainder of the term vacated due to the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957. Senator Proxmire served as the Chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs from 1975 to 1981 and again from 1987 to 1989.
Sen. Proxmire was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport.
As Chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Proxmire was instrumental in devising the financial plan that saved New York City from bankruptcy in 1976-77.
In his last two Senate campaigns of 1976 and 1982, Proxmire refused to take any campaign contributions, and spent on each less than $200 out of his own pocket - to cover the expenses related to filing for re-election and return postage for unsolicited contributions. He was an early advocate of campaign finance reform.
Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Awards identifying wasteful government spending between 1975 and 1988. The first one was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation for funding an $84,000 study on "why people fall in love." Proxmire's critics claimed that his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map. He was heavily criticized for this by journalist Stewart Brand, but Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI. As with pork barrel spending on defense projects, he successfully stopped numerous science and academic projects of dubious value.
One winner of the Golden Fleece Award, Ronald Hutchinson, was so outraged that he sued Proxmire for defamation in 1976. Proxmire claimed that his statements about Hutchinson's research were protected by the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Clause does not immunize members of Congress from liability for defamatory statements made outside of formal congressional proceedings. Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979).
From 1967 until 1986, Proxmire gave daily speeches noting the necessity of ratifying The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. After giving this speech every day that the Senate was in session for 20 years, resulting in 3,211 speeches, the convention was ratified by the U.S. Senate by a vote on 83-11 on February 11, 1986. He was also known for his fitness and so was nicknamed "push up". He died from Alzheimer's disease in Sykesville, Maryland on December 15, 2005.