Republican officeholders and candidates are painfully aware that their party’s November drubbing was partially the result of GOP and independent voters’ dismay at their lack of fiscal discipline. To win again, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn may be providing a model. Once a thorn in the GOP’s side, Coburn is now a role model for Republicans looking to recapture their credentials as the party of small government and fiscal restraint.
The D.C. Doctor
It’s clear that Coburn is not like other senators from the moment his office answers the phone — “Dr. Tom Coburn’s Senate office.” Still a practicing obstetrician, Coburn is far from seeing the Senate as the highest calling in life. As a member of an institution in which comity is held in the highest regard, Coburn, as Norm Ornstein puts it, “fits comfortably into a long tradition of being the skunk at the garden party.” Ornstein continues, saying that Coburn follows in the footsteps of both conservatives and liberals who “had principles, and use leverage that they have to drive colleagues batty and do what is right.” In an interview for this article, Coburn simply says: “My motivation is to leave here the same legacy that was left for us.”
Coburn started upending furniture well before he was elected to the Senate in 2004. During his three terms in the House, he took delight in challenging the new GOP leadership at every turn, once stalling the agriculture appropriations bill with 115 amendments and later adding 200 amendments to the labor appropriations bill. He challenged Newt Gingrich on his unwillingness to sustain the government shutdown in 1995 and to keep the GOP’s commitment to reduce funding for committee staff. In 1997 he joined an attempt to oust Gingrich as speaker. He also stood out as one of the most conservative representatives on a host of social issues, introducing a controversial bill for mandatory AIDS testing and earning derision for criticizing the television broadcast of Schindler’s List for its frontal nudity. He entered the House with a commitment to a term limit and kept his word, declining to run for re-election in 2000. He later published his memoirs recounting in detail the failures of the Republican leadership to fulfill their “Contract with America.”
Back to Work
When he returned to Washington in 2004, he displayed no sign that his combative experience in the House had chastened him. Indeed, Coburn set out to take advantage of Senate rules to take a wrecking ball to the federal budgeting and spending process, with little regard for the niceties of Senate protocol. Professor Rebekah Herrick of Oklahoma State University says: “Tom Coburn clearly upsets his colleagues. When he was in the House he had a similar reputation as willing to upset colleagues to make a point for fiscal responsibility.”
Some see Coburn as a personal symbol of a “citizen legislator” who has come to Washington to shake up the system. He describes his perspective as a physician and non-Washington insider as “very helpful” and hopes his experience will demonstrate that “you can do the right thing and get re-elected.” As Ornstein describes him, Coburn is someone “who really sees himself as on a crusade. He didn’t come here to enjoy power and the nice life. He doesn’t care if people like him or not.”
In the Senate Coburn has shown little deference to his party’s leaders, attacking what he sees as a fiscal system out of control, the prime example being congressional earmarks. As Stephen Slivinski of the CATO Institute describes it, Coburn seems to have embraced the idea that you have “got to break eggs” if you’re going to make a difference.
Coburn has described earmarks as a “gateway drug” for government excess, spending irrationality, and influence by special-interest groups. In the fall of 2005 he upset the Senate code of comity by challenging one of the body’s most senior and powerful figures, Ted Stevens of Alaska, when he proposed shifting the $223 million earmarked for Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” to repair a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He enraged Stevens, who threatened to resign at one point, and lost the effort to remove the bridge by over 60 votes. Nevertheless, the point was made and the gauntlet thrown down.
Combined with the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals, Coburn’s illumination of congressional pork caught the public’s attention. Others had talked about spending excesses, but he provided the public with easily understood examples to show a badly broken budget process. Slivinski explains: “It is easy to be angry at $500 wrenches. It is less easy to be angry at ‘unfunded liabilities.’”
Alison Fraser of the Heritage Foundation agrees that Coburn has been “extremely helpful” in highlighting “wildly illustrative” examples of a federal budget process that has gotten “completely out of hand.” Over the last decade or so, Fraser, along with various spending watch-dog groups, has seen lobbyists from special-interest groups gradually assert more and more influence over the budget process, directing funds to pet causes and parochial concerns to the detriment, they believe, of the country as a whole. In 1991, Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW) identified 591 such instances; the number soared to 13,997 in 2005. Everyone can point to their favorite egregious case: the 2004 $50 million earmark for an indoor rainforest in Iowa, for instance, or the $700 million earmark backed by both Mississippi senators for the “Railroad to Nowhere.” Thomas Schatz, president of CAGW, says, “This is something the public can understand and will get upset about.”