The penultimate meeting of President Obama’s debt commission Wednesday was a data-heavy affair, with members and reporters poring over the 58-page final report brimming with facts and figures.
Each member of the commission who attended the meeting — only Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan and Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana were absent, negotiating the Bush tax cuts — spoke for several minutes.
Most speeches stayed policy-focused, with members saying what parts of the plan they liked and didn’t like.
Then, after two hours of speeches, Sen. Tom Coburn took his turn.
Coburn’s eight-minute speech made a few nods to data and policy, but was more of a plea for a wholesale change in American culture.
“Nobody is looking at what the real problem is. And the real problem is us,” said the recently bearded Oklahoma Republican.
“We have way too much government and not enough of the thing that made America great, which is independence, personal responsibility and self-reliance,” he said. “We have abandoned the principles which made America exceptional, which wasn’t the government. It was the people. It was us relying on ourselves, not saying I can take a pass and depend on the government.”
He pointed to what he said are too many people who are receiving disability payments from the government as one example, and to the fact that two new categories of disabilities are in the process of being created right now. He added that the government should help “those who cannot fix their situation any other way.”
The senator said that historically democratic republics only last about 200 years before they “rot from within” and then are conquered militarily.
“And we’re rotting. We’re rotting as we sit here and speak today,” he said. But he said the committee could help set a different course to “cheat history.”
“History says we’re not going to make it,” he said. “The way we cheat history is for all of us to give up something: everybody at this table give up something, and then say, ‘The way forward for America is for everyone to start sacrificing so we create a future that is honoring the tremendous sacrifices that came before us.’”
Coburn’s ode to self-reliance drew a respectful silence from those in the Senate hearing room, Hart 216, the same used by the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees.
After Coburn finished speaking, commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said of his speech: “I hope everybody sees that.”