QA With Sen. Tom Coburn, the Earmark Foe

'The culture [of Congress] is the thing that limits it from doing what is best.'

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As the Senate hammers out next year's spending bills, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is on high alert. The physician turned lawmaker has become known on Capitol Hill as the chief fiscal whistleblower, irritating Republicans and Democrats alike when he holds up bills he deems wasteful. Several weeks ago, he embarrassed Democrats by removing a $1 million spending earmark from the Labor appropriations bill that would have gone to a performing arts center in New York that included a tribute to the 1969 Woodstock festival. The senator recently spoke in his office about why he's so fired up against pork barrel spending.

How did you become the spokesperson against earmarks?

Earmarks is the symptom of the disease. What's the disease? The disease is a comparison of us versus what's best for our country. When I ran, what I said is that the biggest problem in our country was the culture of Congress because the culture is the thing that limits the Congress from doing what is best in the long term for the country. The people up here are good people. But they are human, and their desire for themselves oftentimes gets in the way of the desire for the best interest of the country. Earmarks cause us to think short term about, "How do I satisfy the desires of people from my state?"... Earmarks really aren't about helping your state. They're really about helping you look good in your state. And if it is about helping you look good in your state, then it is about you, which means it's about your next election, not what's in the best long-term interest of the country.

How did this become your bailiwick?

(Coburn points to a photo of his four grandchildren.) My grandkids. Don't we all want them to have the same opportunities or better to advance themselves, live free, be personally responsible, and take advantage of this greatest economic experiment and greatest experiment of freedom that's ever been? Don't we want that to continue? We're walking on a ledge. We're letting the political dynamic of partisanship and parochialism undermine the future of our country. The dollar fell to its lowest level today again. The index was down again. Why is the euro worth $1.42 now? Does it have anything to do with people thinking that perhaps we can't repay our debts and maybe we're living beyond our means?

What I'm partisan for is the next generation, and we're really loading them [down with debt]. We're loading them to such an extent that most of them probably won't own a home, won't get a college education, because they will be carrying just the interest on our debt. When you start looking, even with a growth rate of 4 or 5 percent, we can't grow out of the problem. So we aren't ever going to be trusted to fix those big problems until the American people have confidence that we're doing with the discretionary budget what we should be doing.

I don't have a sophisticated strategy other than, "Here's what I believe." And I'm not worried about losing friends to get there because our country is worth more than that. Our future is worth more than that.

Do you think this has hurt you politically? Sen . Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, was quite annoyed about you going after that bridge in Alaska earmark.

It already has. If I had an idea for an amendment today, I'd try not to run it. I'd try to give it to someone else because if it had my name on it is automatically going to get no votes from the appropriators. That may be a little bit harsh. It's probably not that bad. But there's no question that I'm an irritant. I understand that. But this body needs an irritant. It needs us to focus on the long run. It needs us to focus on the next generation. But I'm not discourteous. And I'm consistent. They know I'll be out there and I'm not partisan when I attack somebody and I really am thinking about the future. So, it's kind of like Phil Gramm said, I didn't come here expecting to find a lot of friends, and I have not been disappointed.

Barack Obama said recently that if he were elected president you would be one of the people he would reach out to across the aisle. He called you a friend.