No backing down on spending Coburn free to ruffle feathers as popularity not a concern
Despite being in the minority in a Senate that is more tilted to Democrats than at any time in the past three decades, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has gone head to head with Majority Leader Harry Reid — and won. His secret: He doesn’t care.
Mr. Coburn’s nonchalance about his own political future has given him the freedom to be Capitol Hill’s most outspoken fiscal hawk and guardian of the Constitution. Most recently, his persistence paid off as he was able to attach an amendment allowing licensed firearms in some federal parks to a consumer credit card bill two weeks ago.
“I don’t go away. He’s learned that,” Mr. Coburn says of his frequent floor battles with Mr. Reid. “Since I don’t care whether I get beat up or not, I’m really dangerous for him.”
In a chamber dominated by career politicians, Mr. Coburn has not shied away from ruffling feathers in his obsessive pursuit of shrinking the government. He rails against government waste with equal vigor be the culprits Democrats, Republicans or both.
That’s because, he warns, the next generation’s standard of living hangs in the balance. “We are stealing your very future. It is going away as we speak.”
Four years into his first Senate term, the 61-year-old obstetrician and the chamber’s onyl practicing doctor is a self-described citizen legislator who has pledged to serve no more than two terms. He similarly limited himself to three terms in the House, where he served from 1995 to 2001.
Mr. Coburn’s stated reasons for public service are a far cry from the grandiose, boilerplate response one might expect from a member of Congress.
“I was disgusted and worried,” he says flatly. “I think what we have is at risk, and it’s actually much more at risk today than it ever has been.”
As a member of the Republican Revolution’s freshman class, he was frustrated by the House Republican leadership’s failure to follow through on its Contract With America, later penning a book about the experience called “Breach of Trust.”
“Too often, the Congress in my lifetime has gone in the direction of career protection rather than country protection,” he says. “It’s really a paradox — the less you want to stay here, the more free you are to do what’s in the best long-term interest of the country. But the even greater paradox is the more confidence you develop from your constituents because they know your motivations then are not about you.”
Mr. Coburn, who will announce on June 1 whether he will seek a second term next year, cites the case of colleague and former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties to avoid an uphill primary battle.
“The question is, what’s the true motivation behind the public service — is it about the servant, or is it about those served? Only individuals can ask that in the quiet of their own mind,” he says. “He decided being in the Senate was more important than principles he’d aligned with for 40 years or staying true and loyal to the relationships he had. He chose to win at any cost. Is that about our country and is that about Pennsylvania, or is that about Arlen Specter?”
As for President Obama, whom — like Mr. Specter — he describes as a friend, Mr. Coburn says it’s too early to make a meaningful evaluation of his performance, but offers some mixed reviews. Although he has voted against every major Obama initiative thus far, including the president’s $3.6 trillion budget, Mr. Coburn praised the White House for suggesting $17 billion in cuts. In contrast, other Senate Republicans blasted the proposals as anemic.
“At least he had the courage to say, ‘I found $17 billion, let’s get rid of it,’ ” he says.
At the same time, Mr. Coburn slams Mr. Obama’s budget as a violation of the Constitution’s enumerated powers. He also says he was disappointed by Mr. Obama’s failure to live up to his word on ending earmarks, by signing an omnibus spending bill that contained thousands of pet projects, which Mr. Coburn describes as an “incestuous, insidious disease.”
“He missed a great opportunity,” he says. “Being consistent with your word and meaning what you say means something. It’s powerful.”
In fact, Mr. Coburn and his colleagues say it’s consistency that has enabled him to maintain friendships with other senators while being an outspoken critic of spending.
“They may not like what he does, but nobody is more respected,” says Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who joins Mr. Coburn in the war on pork. “He’s a man of courage, integrity and more than his share of guts.”
Pulling a copy of the Constitution out of his coat pocket, Mr. Coburn says it’s his oath that compels him to speak out.
“I’m not going to duck away from an issue, and here’s the reason why — I swore an oath. Oath means something to me,” he says. “I try to make every vote fit with what this book says.”
Mr. Coburn is relying on his medical background to prepare for the looming fight over health care reform. While neither Mr. Obama nor Democrats in Congress have put out a plan yet, their rhetoric has focused on universal coverage, which he says alone won’t do anything to squelch skyrocketing costs.
“If you don’t address prevention and incentivize it, you don’t incentivize wellness, and you don’t incentivize chronic-disease management, those three things, I don’t care what you do — you’re not going to solve the problems that we have in health care,” says Mr. Coburn, who introduced legislation on May 20 that he says would overhaul the system without “costing a penny” by creating a true market in health care.
At the end of the Senate workweek, Mr. Coburn relishes returning home to Muskogee, Okla., where he runs his medical practice every other Monday. He says it keeps him grounded.
“It levels me,” says Mr. Coburn, who has delivered more than 4,000 babies. “It lets me see what the real world’s like. That’s the other problem with Washington. We don’t have a good handle on what the real world’s like because we’re insulated from it.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, says “It’s really a paradox — the less you want to stay [in Congress], the more free you are to do what’s in the best long-term interest of the countr y.” As an obstetrician, He is relying on his medical background in preparation for the fight over health care reform.