Washington devotees of business-as-usual won’t miss him, but taxpayers and reporters will. Tom Coburn, the refreshingly principled senator from Oklahoma, has announced he will leave office at the end of 2014 as he battles a recurrence of prostate cancer.
Although he will be leaving office two years before his term is up, Tom Coburn was never going to be one of those who became married to the Beltway. A physician, he made you think he really meant it when he said he’d rather be back home delivering babies — which he indeed continued to do for several years in spite of congressional ethics rules. “Our Founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career,” he said in a written statement announcing his retirement.
Tom Coburn was a true citizen-politician when first elected to the House in 1994 from a solidly Democratic district in Oklahoma. Although wildly popular back home, Mr. Coburn retired in 2001 after three terms because he feared that he might succumb to “Potomac Fever” if he stayed longer. He has joked that many of his former colleagues are suffering from an addiction. “Power is like morphine,” he writes. “It dulls the senses, impairs judgment, and leads politicians to make choices that damage their own character and the machinery of democracy.”
Coburn helped end the practice of members “earmarking” pork-barrel projects in late-night committee hearings for special interests back home. But so much of Congress’s dysfunction remains. A sore spot with him is that members of Congress frequently don’t have time to read the bills they are voting on. Thus Congress spends more than $150 billion every year on more than 200 programs that are not authorized by law. Making room for all that spending in turn requires Congress to use “one-time” increases — often “emergency spending” measures — year after year. Small wonder that the late Representative James Burke of Massachusetts once told an innocent freshman: “Your problem, son, is that you think this place is on the level.”
Tom Coburn never came to believe Washington was on the level, but he still did a fair bit to correct the lean of the ship of state.