Tom Coburn, Gang of One

Kevin Ring President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
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Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has been without question the most principled conservative in Washington, D.C. over the past two decades. He has done more than any other member of Congress to try to restrain wasteful spending and to reverse growing budget deficits. In fighting overspending by both political parties, Coburn has shown uncommon courage and made lots of enemies among the statists and big-spenders. Yet, today, his willingness to close wasteful tax loopholes in order to reduce the nation’s unsustainable debt has raised the ire of some on the right, including Washington’s biggest Ronald Reagan idolater. If this fight continues, fiscal conservatives should stand with the good doctor from Muskogee.

Coburn’s efforts are worth recounting. Soon after he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the tidal wave of 1994, he joined a group of other hard-core Republicans to form a group originally named (and then later renamed) the Republican Study Committee. I was one of the staffers who helped put the group together and remember vividly when Coburn first spoke up. He recommended that the group’s membership not be made public, lest it cause political problems for some from Democratic districts, like his. The reason his request stands out in my mind is because, whatever fears he might have had with associating with such a hard-charging group, Coburn quickly established himself as the most dedicated budget hawk in the caucus and the entire party.

Even though Republicans controlled the House, Coburn thought the members of the Appropriations Committee were out of control. He used to say that there were three parties in Congress, not two: Republican, Democrats, and appropriators — and the appropriators were unified in a desire to spend money.

Going after appropriators was unheard of for a junior member of the House, especially a backbencher from the majority party. Such insubordination guaranteed a member that he would receive no funding for projects in his district. Coburn did not care. He did not think it was his job to beg for federal funding for parochial projects. Since his support could not be extorted by project-bestowing appropriators, Coburn was free to serve his conscience. He worked tirelessly to draft amendments to cut spending from the bills that the Republican leadership brought to the floor. One time, he effectively launched a filibuster — a maneuver that does not exist in the House — by filing over 100 amendments to an agriculture spending bill in order to call attention to the waste of taxpayer money.

Coburn was no showboat. He studied hard. He and his dedicated staff would pore over Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office reports to identify and target programs that were either not federal responsibilities or were not working.

Tom Coburn retired from the House after six years, fulfilling his term-limit pledge. But no one who watched his work in the House believed he could sit idle as the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress spent more than Bill Clinton ever dreamed was possible. Coburn returned to Washington in 2005 — this time as a senator — and went right back to work cutting spending. Again, he put his head down and worked hard. He has become well-known and widely despised for putting holds on every spending bill until he is satisfied that it carries a corresponding spending reduction.

He is so dedicated to exposing wasteful spending that he sometimes works with — gasp! — Democrats. Most shocking to the talk radio right, Coburn even worked with a young Democratic senator from Illinois to bring transparency to the billions of taxpayer dollars given out in grants. (Coburn seems to have caught a break; his partner’s socialist and Kenyan, anti-colonialist tendencies were not contagious.)

Most recently, Coburn came under friendly fire from some on the right for his participation in the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group trying to implement the best recommendations of the president’s debt commission. Why would this be objectionable? Because Coburn had the audacity to admit the obvious: the only debt agreement that will have sufficient public and congressional support to pass will necessarily include some revenue increases. These increases — whether they take the form of closing corporate loopholes or slightly raising the rate for the highest earners — will be the price of admission to getting Democrats, who, some seem to forget, control the Senate and the White House, to agree to entitlement savings. This is not brain surgery. It is Legislating 101.

Just this week, Coburn announced he was leaving the Gang of Six because the bipartisan group had reached an impasse. The news was disappointing. Even more disappointing was that so many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives were cheering the group’s (and Coburn’s) demise. For Coburn and anyone with a functioning memory, it has to be galling to hear this crowd pretend that all Congress has to do is cut spending. After all, it was Coburn who spent more time than anyone over the past dozen years on the House and Senate floors offering hundreds of amendments to trim the most ridiculous, wasteful spending programs — only to lose over and over again as Republicans and Democrats resisted the tiniest bit of discipline.

To ignore that history while believing that the last election revealed public support for substantial cuts in the federal government’s most popular programs betrays a level of delusion worthy of involuntary commitment. Fortunately, Coburn suffers no such delusions. As he wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, “The public rightly prefers spending cuts over revenue increases, but numerous polls indicate the vast majority of Americans would support the only type of plan that would ever make it out of Congress and be signed into law: one that favors spending cuts over revenue increases but includes both.”

Can Tom Coburn really be the only conservative who understands that?

Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md. He previously served on Capitol Hill as a counsel to then-Senator John Ashcroft; executive director of the Republican Study Committee; and legislative director to former Congressman John Doolittle.