"Well, let's see. I loved the $145,000 wave-making machine for the swimming pool in Salt Lake City. And the one in Arlington County, right here, about why people get angry on tennis courts.
"Oh, and Pittsburgh, yes, Pittsburgh! There was some alleged artistic event. A woman got tax-payers' money to film crepe paper as it was tossed out of an airplane.
"But, oh, jeez, one of the best ones was $102,000 to discover whether fish getting drunk on tequila are more aggressive than fish getting drunk on gin. And $46,000 to discover how long it takes to cook breakfast. And $84,000 to try to discover why people fall in love.
"Ah, I could go on."
And surely, Howard Shuman will.
He will go on down the same route that produced 53 previous Golden Fleece awards, each etched into the public psyche - and sense of humor. On into untold waste of the taxpayers' money. On into the hilarious, the trivial, the dubious, the implausible. On, as Howard Shuman would say, "until we prove once and for all that a liberal doesn't have to be a wastrel."
Shuman is a 55-year-old Capitol Hill veteran who "writes one-fourth and edits four-fourths" of the famed monthly Golden Fleece awards issued by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.).
Cloaked snugly in snide irony, the Fleeces are awarded (usually around the 20th of the month) to whoever Proxmire and his staff believes has wasted public money in an especially stunning way.
The awards are many things, but quiet isn't one of them. Although Shuman insists that Fleece press releases follow the same distribution pattern as any others from Proxmire's office, each month's Fleece attracts more media play than all but the most momentous Hill events.
Shuman is thus as close as it comes in the U.S. to an effective public watchdog, a guy who exposes wrongs and can expect people to listen. How can you beat it? As Golden Fleecer, Shuman gets to be constructive, creative, anonymous and cynical, all at once.
But Fleecing does not take up much of Shuman's time, and does not constitute much of his self-image. Shuman would prefer not to be known or remembered for it.
"I'm more interested in playing tennis," he says. "I'm more interested in issues. I'm more interested in growing roses. I'm equally interested in the British elections."
Shuman's job description says he is Proxmire's administrative assistant. As such, Shuman garbs his trim self in gray three-piece suits and plain black loafers, and spends his days preparing and analyzing legislation in one of those teeny overstuffed offices the Hill has made famous.
But it is Shuman the Fleecer who gets the ultimate Washington insiders' compliment: A Jack Anderson muckseeker comes to visit once a month.
"He asks me for good stuff, and I always tell him, 'If it isn't good enough for us, it probably won't be good enough for you,' " Shuman says. "But I can't stop him from asking, can I?"
Nor can Shuman stop the counter-punches the Fleeces have been attracting lately.
The most immediate and serious is an $8 million libel action brought by a 1978 Fleecee. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case this term.
But the most frequent bickering takes the form of "Proxmire, heal thyself."
Typically, Fleecees accuse Proxmire of spending more to print his Fleece press releases than the Fleecee is accused of wasting. Almost as often, scientists complain that, because so many Fleeces are awarded to research grants, Proxmire as "anti-research" or "anti-intellectual." Shuman and Proxmire vigorously deny the charges, but the charges persist. Of particular concern to those seeking research money is the fact that Proxmire sits on the appropriations subcommittee that reviews the budgets - including research grants - for the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Mental Health and the Department of Transportation.
Almost as frequent lately is a kind of Fleece Chic. A high point of sorts was reached last year when a social science researcher was Fleeced for spending more than $100,000 to investigate behavior patterns in a Peruvian brothel.
"He got in touch with us and told us he thought it was great; better than winning the Pulitzer Prize," said Shuman, with a bemused shake to the head.
Another Fleecee evidently felt the same way. She has taken to listing her Fleece on her resume.
Who is the man who has wrought such influence? Howard Shuman is a downstate Illinois native and former Navy lieutenant. He was busily becoming an economics professor when, in the mid-50s, he was seduced aboard the Washington-bound liberal magic carpet of Sen. Paul Douglas.
Shuman spent 11 years on Douglas' staff, and it was during that time that he began to nurture his Fleecy mentality. "Douglas criticized military spending, and nobody did that then," Shuman recalls.
His pride in Douglas' idealism and waste-watching orientation could not be plainer. Despite a decade with Proxmire, it is Douglas' picture that occupies front and center on Shuman's wall.
Fleecing fits neatly with the private Shuman, too. If he noticed one bottle of ketchup in a grocery priced at 59 cents, and the one beside it marked 64 cents, "sure, I'd go see the manager. I don't sit still for that kind of thing." Shuman says he can imagine himself throwing out an apple he hadn't gnawed to the core, "but I wouldn't do it if I could help it."
What has the Fleece truly meant in its nearly five years? "It's been catchy," Shuman says, "but genuine, too. We're making a case to the public. We're saying, 'Change the priorities.' That's really your job if you are an issue-oriented senator.
"What I know is, if you turn over the rock, there isn't an agency in this government, whether you love it or not, in which some portion of their funds isn't outrageously spent."
And what, pray tell, are some of those misspendings that will be Fleeced in the future? Howard Shuman whips open a file drawer that is spilling over with papers. He hunts for a while. At last, he finds the candidates folder.
"Well, we've got a guy who wants $100,000 to study how kids approach ice cream trucks. We've got a $3,500 grant to discover whether smoking marijuana affects the wind of deep sea divers. How about $70,000 to promote hitchhiking? How about . . ."
The Fleece, it seems, marches on. CAPTION: Picture, Howard Shuman and a Golden Fleece winner - the newest Senate office building. By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post