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.”
Coburn continues to make headway, if not achieve outright victories. While his campaign against the Bridge To Nowhere lost by over 60 votes, his effort to eliminate the “Railroad to Nowhere” lost by only a handful of votes, and the same with his recent effort to remove approximately $100 million in federal support for the parties’ political conventions. It is no longer possible to view his efforts as fruitless or quixotic. His strategy has been to offer amendment after amendment seeking to highlight and then remove these spending abuses, and it has brought about consequences. As Fraser describes it, “He is trying to force them on each and every vote to have an honest debate.” In many instances Coburn’s efforts are designed simply to force the Senate to follow its own rules and provide adequate time for consideration of these spending bills. According “NZ Bear,” blogger and co-founder of the Internet watchdog alliance Porkbusters, “He is the one who has been willing to stand up and just keep reminding the Congress of their responsibility to behave like adults, over and over again.”
A Lasting Accomplishment
More important, perhaps, than the daily fight over earmarks was his championing of S. 2590, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Co-sponsored by Barak Obama, S. 2590 passed in September 2006 and established an online, public search-engine and database to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and loans. Coburn says that greater transparency will bring “more accountability” and that media, watchdog groups, and political challengers will have the “tool” they never had to demonstrate the profligacy of government. As Schatz describes it, “The way to change the whole process is to change how taxpayers view it.” By exposing the details of government spending and grants, Coburn and his supporters hope to provide the public and political challengers with political ammunition to finally return rationality to the budgeting process.
Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform credits Coburn with “starting a wildfire” with the transparency measure and points to dozens of similar measures which have been proposed or have passed in states and municipalities. Norquist explains that this will allow challengers to run for office knowing as much about spending as the incumbent, allowing him to point out “a hundred checks he would never have written.”
John McCain, who has long championed spending restraint, said about him last September: “He’s got guts, he’s got integrity. And I cannot tell you how proud I am to follow his lead in trying to eliminate what has angered so many Americans and that’s this wasteful, outrageous Pork Barrel Spending.”
According to former Senator Rick Santorum (R., Pa.), Coburn already has made a difference, and the “Senate needs people like him.” Conceding that party leadership may be frustrated because Coburn “does not do what they want him to do” at times, he nevertheless praises Coburn as someone who does listen to colleagues and is “focused” and “persistent.”
A Long Way to Go
Some contend that these efforts may make good headlines, but they miss the big picture. Depending on the group doing the calculation, earmarks make up 1-2 percent of spending if entitlement expenditures are included, and 5 percent if they are not. Nevertheless spending watchdogs see Coburn’s efforts as a worthwhile attack on what Slivinski says is the “entrenched pathology” of fiscal mismanagement. These groups hope that with a more interested public, Coburn and others can move to long-term problems like entitlement reform.
Coburn agrees, and points to his efforts to reform the health system by the introduction last month of his “Universal Health Care Choice and Access Act,” which includes provisions to create a competitive national market for health insurance, tax rebates for individuals, and increased consumer choice for Medicare coverage-plans rather than what he calls “Government-run, ‘Big Brother’ health care plans.” He also believes that Social Security reform, including voluntary personal savings accounts, was “not promoted properly” and that the public is far more receptive to reform than politicians believe.
Will Coburn eventually be worn down? He sounds unbowed and talks with enthusiasm about transforming “[politics] based on fear to politics based on courage.” Nevertheless, he warns supporters that he does not expect significant change in the next six months or year and that they’re going to “need some elections” before his message of fiscal sanity wins the day. Bloggers and watchdog groups think and hope he keeps up the fight. “NZ Bear” opines: “As for Senate collegiality and decorum wearing them down — I don’t think Coburn is wear-downable.” For now, fiscal conservatives encourage him to keep his “teeth in the trousers” and continue his battle against a budget process they view as still badly in need of reform.
Just Can’t Get Enough? The Editors also think bringing pork to light makes sense. Stephen Spruiell writes a series on pork. Kate O’Beirne wonders why Coburn’s Senate colleagues wouldn’t want him to spend more time as a doctor. Brian Riedl is certainly no fan of pork, but Ramesh Ponnuru argues that cutting down on earmarks won’t reduce spending by much.