Dozens of members of Congress will be retiring next month, and some should be missed. But there is only one Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator the Christian Science Monitor has dubbed “a rabble-rousing statesman.”
Those two qualities together are rare in politicians, but they found a happy union in the 66-year-old obstetrician who is leaving the Senate early next month to battle prostate cancer. On the one hand, Coburn never retreated on his core values: He is staunchly pro-life, for traditional marriage, and resistant to all manner of fads from climate-change regulation to mindless intervention overseas. As the Senate’s “Dr. No” from 2004 to today, he held up hundreds of special-interest boondoggles and end-runs around common sense. At the same time, he maintained a standard of honest dealing and integrity that many more in Congress should aspire to.
This month, he took to the Senate floor to make his farewell remarks. He reminded his colleagues that they take an oath to “protect the United States of America, its Constitution, and its liberties.” What’s not included in that oath, he warned, is any mention that senators have a duty to provide benefits to their state.
“It’s nice to be able to do things for your state, but that isn’t our charge,” he said. “Our charge is to protect the future of our country by upholding the Constitution and ensuring the liberty that’s guaranteed there is protected and preserved.”
It was that desire that drove Tom Coburn to first run from an Oklahoma House district in 1994 that had never elected a Republican. A physician, he continued to deliver babies while in office and forced the Ethics Committee to back down from its contention that such outside work was against House rules. Although wildly popular back home, Coburn retired in 2000 after three terms because he feared he might succumb to “Potomac Fever” if he stayed longer. He joked that many of his former colleagues are suffering from an addiction. “Power is like morphine,” he wrote in his book Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders. “It dulls the senses, impairs judgment, and leads politicians to make choices that damage their own character and the machinery of democracy.”
I remember that when Coburn decided to run for the Senate in 2004 after a spell in the private sector, every prominent elected Republican in and out of Oklahoma opposed him. After all, this was the man who openly circulated a list of what he called “the ten things Congress doesn’t want you to know about how it does business.”
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.”
The Republican Congress that Tom Coburn rejoined in 2004 wasn’t on the level. Earmarks — pork-barrel projects that many members secured in secret — were at the heart of the scandals that sent Jack Abramoff and former California representative Duke Cunningham to jail. The Senate Appropriations Committee (known as the “favor factory”) was chaired by Alaska senator Ted Stevens, a self-described “mean, miserable SOB” when it came to anyone who questioned the earmark culture. When Coburn challenged his $228 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in 2005, Stevens warned fellow senators, “If we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”
Coburn stood up to Stevens and other pork-barrelers, and while he often lost individual battles, he won the war. The exit polls in the 2006 election revealed that corruption in government was second only to the Iraq war as the driving force behind the Democratic takeover of both chambers. Coburn, then-representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, and others reminded Republicans that they needed to return to the party’s small-government roots. They noted that in 1987, Ronald Reagan vetoed a highway bill because it had 121 earmarks in it. After the 2010 election, the earmark culture was largely dismantled; what’s left is certainly more transparent in both houses.
Transparency was a hallmark of Coburn’s efforts in Congress. It even created an opportunity for him to cooperate with freshman Democratic senator Barack Obama in passing a bill to create a government website designed to let the public see how government money is spent. Sadly, President Obama’s record on transparency has been a profound disappointment. The Government Accountability Office reported in August that the website USASpending.gov is riddled with errors and omissions.
“The administration set a goal of 100 percent accuracy by the end of 2011,” Coburn told the Washington Times shortly after the GAO report came out. “Three years later, the federal government cannot even break a 10 percent accuracy rate.”
That same month, nearly two-thirds of the government’s inspector generals — most of them appointed by President Obama — sent a letter to Congress warning that the Obama administration was actively blocking many of their efforts to ferret out waste and abuse. This behavior was “inconsistent with the IG Act, at odds with the independence of inspectors general, and risks leaving the agencies insulated from scrutiny and unacceptably vulnerable to mismanagement and misconduct” the 47 IGs warned.
Shows such as 60 Minutes and other establishment-media sources have celebrated the fact that Coburn and Obama developed a friendship in the Senate that continues to this day. In 2013, Obama even penned an essay on Coburn for Time magazine in which he praised his friend and said: “Each of us still hopes the other will see the light. But in the meantime, we’ll settle for being friends.”
Worthy sentiments, and while we should celebrate elected officials who can remain civil and sometimes overcome their differences to reach common ground, Tom Coburn’s contribution to Washington, D.C., culture includes his habit of not putting friendship first and letting disagreements slide or be papered over for the sake of comity. “That’s the way we got in this mess,” he told me once. “Well-meaning people who decided that in order to get along, they would spend other people’s money and mortgage the country’s future.”
Tom Coburn never forgot that members of Congress are spending the hard-earned money of the people back home. Even a lot of conservatives end up forgetting that. Here’s hoping that back in the private sector, Tom Coburn keeps up the fight for his beliefs and that he remains a constant reminder to lawmakers and the White House of ethical standards to which all should aspire.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.