History of the Golden Fleece Award
Former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire issued a Golden Fleece Award every month between March 1975 and December 1988. In his own words, the award singled out a “wasteful, ridiculous or ironic use of the taxpayers’ money.” Through the Golden Fleece Award, Senator Proxmire fought for American taxpayers by focusing public attention on budgetary waste in every branch of government. A number of the programs or projects he targeted were curtailed, modified or canceled, helping to save American taxpayers millions of dollars. More importantly, the Golden Fleece Award encouraged all who handled or sought government money to take extra care.
Senator Proxmire served as Honorary Chairman of the Taxpayers for Common Sense Advisory Board and inspired many. This history of the Senator and his famous Golden Fleece Award is compiled in his honor.
Previous Winners of the Golden Fleece Award
Golden Fleece: The B-21 Raider Attack on Your Wallet (October 2016)
Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded the U.S. Air Force the Golden Fleece Award for its refusal to release the overall cost of the new B-21 "Raider" bomber program. The Air Force plans to buy about 100 B-21 Raiders but has adamantly refused to disclose to the American public how much in taxpayer funds will be shelled out. One independent estimate pegged the cost at $23.5 billion, but that’s in 2016 dollars. Taxpayer alert: Be prepared for inflation!
Responding to questions from Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Goldfein said: “. . .If we are not transparent with the American people on the costs of this weapon system, through its elected leadership, then we have a good chance of losing this program.’’
Golden Fleece: Blinders for Blender Pumps (July 2015)
Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack the Golden Fleece Award for his relentless attempts to subsidize the ethanol industry, most recently providing $100 million in taxpayer subsidies to pay for new gas station pumps that can dispense high-blend ethanol fuels.
“Secretary Vilsack has chosen to do the bidding of the ethanol industry rather than protect American taxpayers --wasting money on what is clearly a business expense,” said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “For this, he has earned himself a Golden Fleece.”
Golden Fleece: Coal to Kaiserslautern (June 2015)
Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) awarded the Golden Fleece to the House and Senate Appropriations committees for blindly perpetuating a wasteful requirement to burn American anthracite at the U.S. military facility in Kaiserslautern, Germany for more than 20 years. The provision tucked away in the annual spending bill for the Department of Defense is the last remnant of a mandate to use coal at all U.S. bases in Europe dating back 54 years, an egregious statutory subsidy for northeast Pennsylvania coal that has cost taxpayers billions. Today, it costs the U.S. military around $20 million a year to heat the Kaiserslautern facility with coal that’s shipped 4,000 miles across the Atlantic.
“This boondoggle has been going on for a half century," said Ms. Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The lawmakers that got Uncle Sam in the business of sending Pennsylvania coal to fuel U.S. military bases in Germany are gone. House and Senate Appropriators deserve the Golden Fleece for perpetuating this waste on auto-pilot.”
Golden Fleece: Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (June 2013)
Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded the Golden Fleece to the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority (KABATA) in Alaska for a decade of waste resulting from its pursuit of a bridge in Anchorage. The Knik Arm Bridge would cost at least $1.6 billion to construct, and is the less infamous but no less wasteful sibling of the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Ketchikan. Both received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the form of earmarks in the 2005 transportation bill.
"KABATA has spent millions of federal taxpayer dollars on the Knik Arm Bridge, with virtually nothing to show for it," said Ms. Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The recent legislative audit calls into serious question the financial underpinnings of the project, and causes us to question whether KABATA is working in the best interest of taxpayers and Alaskans."
Golden Fleece: Small Modular Reactors (February 2013)
Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded the Golden Fleece to the Department of Energy for wasting taxpayer funds on small modular reactors.
Ryan Alexander, president, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: “The nation is two days away from the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. But at the same time we are hearing the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry evangelizing about the benefits of small modular reactors. In reality, we cannot afford to pile more market-distorting subsidies to profitable companies on top the billions of dollars we already gave away.”
Autumn Hanna, senior program director, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: “The nuclear industry has a tradition of rushing forth to proclaim that a new technology, just around the corner, will take care of whatever problem exists. Unfortunately, these technologies have an equally long tradition of expensive failure. If the industry believes in small modular reactors and a reactor in every backyard – great – but don’t expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab.”
Golden Fleece: Agriculture Risk Management Agency (December 2012)
Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded the Golden Fleece to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) for wasting taxpayer funds on risk management education for crops ranging from Christmas trees to turf grass.
“While the program is purported to help underserved producers and crops, grants also teach agricultural producers how to squeeze more money out of taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance,” said Ms. Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Taxpayer dollars have been wasted on conferences and entertainment sessions to inform producers about ways to manage business risks, many of which are already covered by the private sector. With the nation teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff, taxpayers shouldn’t be teaching agribusinesses how to reach deeper into Uncle Sam’s pockets.”
Golden Fleece: The Riverboat Ripoff (April 2012)
Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) is proposing a Riverboat Ripoff. His bill (H.R. 4342) Waterways Are Vital for the Economy, Energy, Efficiency, and Environment Act of 2012 (WAVE4 Act) would bailout commercial barge operators from most of their share of the costs of constructing the locks and dams that make navigation possible on much of the nation’s waterways. Even though taxpayers already cover nearly 90% of the cost for building and maintaining the inland navigation system that makes their businesses viable, this bill proves that for some special interests, that’s not enough. In exchange for a miniscule increase of six cents in the diesel fuel tax, H.R. 4342 proposes to effectively eliminate a cost-sharing responsibility that’s financed inland waterways for more than 30 years while sticking taxpayers, already saddled with $15 trillion in debt, with the bill. The proposed legislation could end up fleecing taxpayers out of an extra $200 million every year. Congressman Whitfield and the bill’s six cosponsors, Rep. Costello (D-IL), Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO), Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), Rep. Tim Johnson (R-IL), and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), rightfully earn a Golden Fleece.
Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska Receives Golden Fleece Award in 2003
(From the Revised Report in 2005): Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is trying to sell America's taxpayers a $315 million "bridge to nowhere" in rural Alaska. As Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he is in a very good position to get his way. But Rep. Young should be stopped from using his political clout to force federal taxpayers to pay for a bridge that is ridiculous in its scope, unjustified on its merits, and far too expensive for taxpayers to swallow at a time of record federal deficits.*** More...
Agency Receives Golden Fleece for Shady Forest Deal in West Virginia
Washington, DC (June 27, 2001) - Citing the illegal use of taxpayer dollars at the Northeastern Research Station's Fernow Experimental Forest, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) today awarded the United States Forest Service the dubious honor of the Golden Fleece Award.
"Either it's amateur hour at the Forest Service, or these employees knowingly chose to defraud taxpayers," commented Jonathan Oppenheimer, Director of the TCS Forest Campaign. "Either way, it cost taxpayers millions of dollars." More...
The Fleece is Back!
Washington, DC (July 5, 2000) -- To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the famous waste-busting award, former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire asked Taxpayers for Common Sense to revive the Golden Fleece Award. The first of the revived Golden Fleeces has been awarded to the FAA for fleecing taxpayers out of a half a billion dollars in lost taxpayer revenue at the Tampa International Airport.
This is the second time that the agency has received the award for the same problem. In 1985, Proxmire also awarded the FAA a Fleece for a similar problem below-market leases at Florida airports.
See also: Airport Ripoff Costs Taxpayers Millions
Taxpayers for Common Sense believes the Fleece is needed now more than ever. The Fleece has three purposes:
- Spotlights specific examples of outrageous waste – The Fleece directs public and media attention to promote to specific issues where reform is needed. It also prevents waste by motivating government officials to protect taxpayer money and thereby avoid the spotlight a Fleece could bring.
- Serves all taxpayers by inspiring advocacy by citizens groups and leadership by public officials – By inviting a variety of activists, citizens groups and public officials to co-release specific Fleeces, Taxpayers for Common Sense seeks to inspire more leadership by public officials and activism by citizen groups.
- Preserves and enhances the reputation of Senator Proxmire and the original Fleece – The new Fleece honors the Senator and the original Fleece by maintaining his high standards of excellence and integrity; inspiring media and public appreciation of his work through an online presence; and, educating a new generation of taxpayers about Senator Proxmire’s legacy.
The dubious distinction of a Golden Fleece Award was not given to just any example of government waste in the federal budget. Instead, it was awarded to federal programs that most Americans would agree were outrageous and wasteful. For example, although Senator Proxmire believed that the MX Missile was a waste of money, he never gave a Fleece to that program.
More importantly, projects receiving the Golden Fleece Awards did not necessarily have high costs, but rather violated a principle of responsible government spending. Some examples include a $27,000 study to determine why inmates want to escape from prison and a $6,000, 17- page document on how to buy Worcestershire Sauce. “My own favorite was the study to find out whether sunfish that drink tequila are more aggressive than sunfish who drink gin,” Senator Proxmire told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1985.
Lastly, to receive a Golden Fleece Award, an example of government waste must never have received national press coverage.
Senator Proxmire was inspired to create the Golden Fleece Award in early 1975 as a way to galvanize public opinion against wasteful spending. In March 1975, the Senator gave his first Golden Fleece Award to the National Science Foundation for conducting an $84,000 study about why people fall in love. After that, the Golden Fleece Award became a regular news feature and favorite with the public.
“The purpose of the award was to dramatize wasteful and extravagant spending to try to discourage it. Highlighting specific, single wasteful expenditures is more effective than simply complaining in a general way about government waste,” Senator Proxmire told The Wall Street Journal in 1988.
First brought to Congress in a special election in 1957, Senator William Proxmire, a Democrat, served 32 years for over five terms in the U.S. Senate until he retired in 1989. During that time, he chaired the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Joint Economic Committee, and was a subcommittee Chairman on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Senator was well known for his high standards of integrity, dedication, and frugality. After a ritual morning exercise of 100 push-ups and a four-mile run, the Senator brought his extraordinary energy to his work in Congress. Present for more than 10,000 roll call votes during the course of 22 and a half years, he still holds the record for the most consecutive votes in the history of the U.S. Senate. In his last two Senate campaigns of 1976 and 1982, Senator Proxmire refused to take any campaign contributions, whatever their form, and spent less than $200 out of his own pocket on each of the campaigns.
In a November 1995 speech, Senator Christopher Dodd commemorated Senator Proxmire’s career and 80th birthday:
“Senator Proxmire is perhaps best remembered for his fanatical devotion to saving taxpayer dollars. He refused to travel abroad at government expense, and he returned $1 million to the Treasury over 6 years by cutting back on staff expenses. This commitment to personal thrift gave him the credibility to stand up to the waste of taxpayer money elsewhere in the government…. Golden Fleece not only makes its point about the potential dangers of ill-managed and ill-conceived government programs, but reminds us of the humor and character of this noble public servant.”
- Words of Praise for Senator Proxmire and the Golden Fleece
- 1999 Inductee to the Taxpayer Hall of Fame
Report written by John Hulgren and Lisa Novins. Special thanks to Senator William Proxmire and his former staff -- Arlene Branca, Ken Dameron, Ruth Fleischer, Mort Schwartz, and Ron Tammen -- for historical information and advice.