By MARSHA MERCER
In March 1975, Sen. William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, grabbed headlines when he bestowed his first Golden Fleece Award. His target: “wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of taxpayers’ money.”
Sound familiar? Some things haven’t changed in 40 years; politicians are still fighting what they deem ludicrous federal spending, although few are as clever as Proxmire.
His first Fleece went to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 to study why people fall in love.
“Not even the National Science Foundation can argue that falling in love is a science,” Proxmire declared. Besides, he said, nobody really wants to know why people fall in love.
“I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don’t want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa,” he wrote, adding that such questions are best left to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Irving Berlin.
A national debate erupted, with conservative Barry Goldwater and three Nobel laureates coming to the researchers’ defense. Columnist James Reston of The New York Times said that Proxmire, normally a sensible, modern man who believed in government’s ability to help solve problems, must have been kidding.
“If the sociologists and psychologists can get even a suggestion of the answer to our pattern of romantic love, marriage, disillusion, divorce – and the children left behind – it could be the best investment of federal money since Mr. Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase,” Reston wrote.
Reston identified a clash of two worthy goals that continues today: We want to eliminate stupid spending but we also want to support research that could help solve society’s problems.
Proxmire wasn’t kidding. His second Fleece in April 1975 took on a University of Michigan researcher who had received $500,000 from three federal agencies to study how and why rats, monkeys and humans clench their jaws.
The researcher sued Proxmire for libel. The Supreme Court found the senator was not immune from suit; he settled out of court for $10,000 and apologized to the researcher on the Senate floor. Proxmire’s legal fees, totaling more than $124,000, were paid by the Senate. The researcher paid his own legal bills.
Proxmire stopped naming researchers after that, but he fired off 166 more press releases announcing Golden Fleece Awards before he left the Senate in 1989.
Over the decades, members of both parties in Congress have crusaded against what they see as wasteful spending. Sen. Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana, last month started giving Waste of the Week awards, recycling items from the Wastebook that former Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, issued annually the last few years. Coburn retired last year.
Coats gave his Waste award March 11 to the National Institutes of Health for spending $387,000 on rabbit massage research at Ohio State University.
“Does NIH need to fund a study to determine the benefits of massage by using 18 white rabbits from New Zealand that receive 30-minute massages four times a day?” Coats asked on the Senate floor. He quoted an official at Ohio State’s Sports Medical Center who said, “We tried to mimic Swedish massage because anecdotally it’s the most popular technique used by athletes.”
“Why didn’t they just ask the football team?” Coats said.
Actually, even though athletes often use massage, researchers say they don’t know the mechanism of how massage improves recovery after exercise and injury. That’s where the rabbits came in.
Ohio State defended its project as “important research designed to help address a key question: Is massage effective as a medical treatment?” The answer could help millions of people who suffer medical conditions that affect their muscles, the university maintained.
One thing is clear. As much as politicians love to make fun of research that sounds frivolous, they rarely act to stop wasteful spending. If they wanted to stop the appearance of grandstanding, they could rely on the annual recommendations of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to reduce overlap and duplication in federal programs as well as improper payments.
Congress and the executive branch implemented only 29 percent of GAO’s cost-saving recommendations over the last four years. The government-wide recommendations reach far beyond funny-sounding research projects.
To curb waste in government, members of Congress can dust off GAO’s reports and start implementing the recommendations. Ridicule may be entertaining but it won’t eliminate government waste.
© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.