Politics & Policy

Misplaced Priorities

A sweating Harry Reid thinks he's putting Tom Coburn on the hot seat.

While the top priority of most Americans — including a growing number of moderate Congressional Democrats — is legislative action on domestic oil exploration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) wants the world’s greatest deliberative body to set aside concerns over skyrocketing energy prices to deal with such pressing issues as interstate pet-monkey sales, a botanical garden in Maryland, and the establishment of a committee to encourage celebration of the War of 1812 bicentennial. Reid’s cloture motion on a 35-bill package called the“Advancing America’s Priorities Act” (AAPA) which authorizes over $11 billion in new spending, is currently scheduled for a Saturday vote.

On the one hand, the legislative package lets Democrats run out the clock on the debate over high energy prices ahead of the August recess. The issue of $4 gasoline has become a rare and significant Republican success that Democrats hope to minimize by moving on. But Reid’s package also has another purpose — it moves several spending authorization bills that an obstinate reformer, freshman Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), has been blocking. It is for this reason that the bill in question is also being called “The Coburn Omnibus.”

Coburn portrays himself as a servant to the taxpayer rather than a member of the Gentleman’s Club, having begun his war against Washington’s spending culture during his three terms in the House of Representatives. He more than earned his reputation as a reform-minded gadfly in 1999 when he fought his own leadership, gumming up a House agricultural spending bill by proposing more than 100 amendments.

Since being elected to the Senate in 2004, Coburn has continued his war on government expansion and waste by using holds and procedural moves to keep the Senate moving as slowly as possible. In 2006, he used the so-called “clay pigeon” — an extremely rare tactic — against his own party’s “emergency” spending bill. After proposing a single, lengthy amendment to abolish $2.7 billion in what he considered wasteful spending items, Coburn broke up his own amendment at the Senate desk into 19 separate parts, with the idea of holding separate votes on each one. A press release from his office explained at the time: “Dr. Coburn used this strategy to help ensure that the American people could hear a full and open debate about a few of the items in the bill that may not be true emergencies related to either the War on Terror or hurricane recovery effort.” He explained that the Senate could easily debate all 19 parts “within a few days.”

As obnoxious as his colleagues have found Coburn’s tactics, he justifies them by pointing out that nearly everyone in the Senate is focused on the short-term — on the next election — and no one is thinking of the long-term fiscal crisis our ballooning deficit threatens to cause. “Congress tends to fix things when there’s a fire,” he said yesterday. “They won’t put any smoke alarms in — they just wait until there’s a fire and they call 9-1-1.”

Coburn’s stubborn commitment to reform has won him few friends. To date, Coburn has fought in near isolation, angering many members of his own party. Other reformers, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) on the Right, Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wisc.) on the Left, and frequently Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), have joined him in his many losing battles to control wasteful government expenditures — in the form of both member-item spending and the creation of new, ever-expanding and often duplicative federal programs. But having sworn off all earmarks for his own state, Coburn has offered enemies few opportunities to punish him.

Coburn has drawn a powerful and clever enemy in Reid, who has obliquely denounced him — never by name — as a senator “intent on blocking virtually everything.” Reid packaged AAPA’s suspect bills together with popular bipartisan legislation that many Republicans were already co-sponsoring, and which they will find it hard to oppose this week. One provision, for example, is named after Christopher Reeve and includes funding for research on paralysis. This is a typical Washington trick that majority parties play, an effective way to make obstinate reformers like Coburn look like bad guys.

Coburn, a medical doctor, singled out the Captive Primate Safety Act for particular criticism, prompted as it was by concerns over monkey bites. “We have 4.6 million dog bites every year, and no one is calling for the Fish and Wildlife Service to start regulating dogs,” he said. Coburn calls the bill S-CHIMP, an irreverent reference to last year’s child health insurance bill, S-CHIP. 

He also points to a $1.5 billion earmark in Reid’s bill for the Washington, D.C., Metro system, which removed all requirements for audits and oversight contained in the original bill. Metro, which received more than $1 billion in federal subsidies over the previous five years, has suffered from chronic fiscal mismanagement and instituted a 22-percent fare hike on rail commuters in January.

As a rule, only a few Republicans have shared Coburn’s concern for the taxpayer in this Congress or in the last, and so one would expect Reid’s wedge tactic to be effective. But this time, Republicans seem to be waking up to the idea that Coburn’s War can work for them politically. The clearest sign of this is the support Coburn is receiving from Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) — who not long ago began his re-election campaign with ads touting the earmark spending he had brought back to his state. Even so, McConnell’s office facilitated a conference call yesterday in which Coburn and DeMint discussed the situation.

“The question,” DeMint said, “is do we have the votes to stay on energy until we get out of here for the August break?” With Reid rallying the base for a party-line vote, Coburn does not expect any Democratic support. But he was still optimistic yesterday that he could block cloture on the whole package, at least for now. “I suspect we will have 41 of us voting against it,” he said in the conference call. “I expect to prevent the bill from coming up.”

David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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