Politics & Policy

The Doctor Is in–or Out?

The case of Sen. Tom Coburn, (would-be) citizen-legislator.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the November 21, 2005, issue of National Review.

Tom Coburn, the obstetrician and Republican senator from Oklahoma, is still in the beginning of his first term. But he has already launched an unprecedented attack on his colleagues’ pet pork projects, and is preparing to mount a challenge to an Ethics Committee that, rejecting the idea of the citizen-legislator, has forbidden him to continue treating some of his patients. In fighting these battles, the good doctor is tackling a chronic condition. His campaign against pork, privilege, and preening is a threat to the established order, and the chamber’s old bulls are determined to tame the maverick in their midst before he can cure the Senate’s sclerosis.

In late October, Coburn mounted an assault on the Senate’s most highly prized prerogative: the allocation of pork spending. This year’s transportation bill, with some 6,300 “earmarks” for pet projects at a cost of $22 billion, presented plenty of targets for the cost-cutting crusader. Most prominent among them was Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere,” meant to replace a ferry connecting Ketchikan (pop. 8,000) with Gravina Island (pop. 50). (On Alaska’s pork spending, see Stephen Spruiell’s “No One Beats Alaska” in the November 7, 2005, issue of NR.) If built, it would be longer than the Golden Gate bridge and cost some $223 million–enough, Coburn has noted, to buy every resident of Gravina Island a Lear jet. Coburn proposed an amendment that would have instead used those funds to cover the costs of repairing the Twin Spans bridge in New Orleans.

In what the Washington Post called “the senatorial version of a hissy fit,” Alaska senator Ted Stevens angrily vowed to become a “wounded bull on the floor of this Senate,” and warned his colleagues that he would “be taken out of here on a stretcher” if they backed Coburn’s proposal. He even threatened to resign from the Senate if the boondoggle bridge were defunded. Apparently believing that he was bolstering his case by repeatedly noting the decades he has spent in the Senate, Stevens declared: “This is not the Senate I devoted 37 years to”; and, “That is not equality, and is not treating my state the way I have seen it treated for 37 years”; and, “I made a statement earlier today that in my 37 years I have never seen this.” In the end, the Senate deferred to Stevens’s longevity–and to his reputation as an Appropriations Committee chairman with a very long memory. The Coburn amendment failed on an 82-15 vote.

But even if Coburn lost the amendment, he won the argument. . . .

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