Where is William Proxmire when we need him?

Over-40s will recall the "Golden Fleece Awards" handed out by William Proxmire, the former Wisconsin Senator best remembered for having conducted a decades-long, one-man crusade against government waste, particularly in the military. Proxmire, remember, would regularly publish monthly lists of government funding foul-ups, usually focused on over-spending on simple things. He particularly enjoyed railing against the Defense Department for its expenditures on such items as $5 nuts, $50 bolts, $500 screwdrivers, and $5000 toilet seats. Perhaps President Bush should bring the former Wisconsin Democrat, now 87, out of retirement, and ask him to scrutinize the nuts and bolts of this Administration's whopping $87 billion budgetary request for funds to "reconstruct" Iraq. For surely, this request deserves Golden-Fleece-level scrutiny. We at the Flyer could go on and on -- and have -- about how the Bush Administration's decision to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq was singularly bone-headed. But that will get us nowhere. Neither will our wishing-and-hoping that other developed nations bail us out with troops and/or money. For better or worse, the rest of the world views Americans as bulls in a china shop. We were the ones who threw caution to the wind, and went charging into Iraq. We broke the vase. Now we own it. That vase comes with an $87 billion price tag, $66 billion of which is earmarked for the Pentagon. What details we so far know must be giving the retired Wisconsin Senator the willies. Wonder what Proxmire thinks, for example, of the $4 million we've set aside for developing telephone area codes in Iraq, or of the $19 million we supposedly need to establish wireless Internet service? And what would he say about the $100 million we've set aside for a couple of thousand sanitation trucks, at $50,000 apiece? Back in April, the Financial Times reported that our all-conquering army was purchasing diesel for its tanks (from American-owned private companies, of course) at roughly $150 a gallon. Hopefully, though, the Defense Department can cut a better deal this time around, since the Administration, in this budget, is earmarking $900 million - we're not making this up --for the importation of petroleum products into Iraq! Frankly, we're surprised that little nuggets like this haven't sent former Senator Proxmire, despite his years, out screaming into the street. And we're even more amazed that all Americans aren't asking the same kind of questions about the Iraq budget so far being asked by only a handful of enterprising reporters. Just last week, on a Baghdad website, an anonymous Iraqi engineer noted that he and his colleagues had estimated the reconstruction cost of a damaged bridge in his neighborhood at $120,000, only to find out that Bechtol, the American contractor, had already put a price tag on the project: $1.4 million. Perhaps this story is apocryphal, but the issues it raises certainly are not. Given its track record and its cozy relationship with so many of the reconstruction corporate players, how can one not view Bush Administration requests for funding with anything but extreme skepticism? And as for the $66 billion earmarked for the Pentagon, how can Congress possibly approve this funding without insisting upon a leadership change at the Department of Defense? By unnecessarily antagonizing potential allies, by grossly underestimating his troop needs in "liberated" Iraq, and by allowing the near-complete destruction of that country's infrastructure in the aftermath of our April "victory," Donald Rumsfeld has already shown himself to be historically inept. The idea of giving so incompetent a Defense secretary responsibility for distributing $66 billion of taxpayer funds in Iraq is ludicrous to the extreme. Only after President Bush has given Rumsfeld his walking papers should Congress even begin to consider the Administration's Iraq budget. And only after that budget is gone over with William Proxmire's fine-toothed comb should its approval even be contemplated, by either the House or the Senate. (Kenneth Neill is publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., parent company of The Memphis Flyer.)

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