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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We met back in orientation.... We kind of hit it off...and I think he's a neat guy, a smart guy. I wish him the best. He actually believes in transparency in government and believes that we shouldn't waste money. Now, he'll spend a whole lot more than I ever would. But lobbyists and interests from your state must come to you asking for you to secure funding for various museums, stadiums, etc.

They did the first three months. Here's what I asked them: "What program do you want to cut for us to do this?" And they didn't have any answers?

No, they didn't. They just want more. So they stopped coming?

They still come; they just stopped asking. They know that I'm not about to sponsor an earmark. I'll never sponsor an earmark.... If you start doing earmarks, what you do is not do the rest of your job and that's this: oversight. You hear all the appropriators say, "We can't just let the bureaucracy spend this money. We need to direct it." Well, what our Founders say is, "It's our responsibility to make sure the government is spending it the right way and hold them accountable when they make poor choices."... Earmarks take your focus off what your job is. Do you think it's hurt you with constituents back home?

No, I get letters all the time that say: "I didn't vote for you. I voted for your opponent, but you're doing exactly what you said you'd do. I trust you now and I'll vote for you." That's Democrats and Republicans. I poll about equally in both parties right now. And that's in the mid to upper 60s.... So, for every Chamber of Commerce that's irritated because I won't direct a sewer system to them, I'll get 150 regular citizens who say, "We'll pay for our sewer system. You fix the rest of the problems so our kids are going to be OK."

I heard that you returned about $200,000 of unused Senate office funds.

It's about $350,000 now. Where did you cut corners? I expected to come in here and find an understaffed office with paint peeling off the walls.

We get plenty of money. If I were a big state and had a whole lot of constituents to take care of, it might be different. But I have seven field representatives—we're in every town all the time.... I have a great staff. They do a super job. We're just efficient. I was a businessman before I was a doctor. I know how to run an organization.... I see when we spend money in our office, we're taking money away from the next generation. If I don't have to spend it, I won't. What made you decide to get into politics back in 1994 when you ran for the House?

I was just irritated. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired, like a lot of other people. I didn't really think I'd come back. Earmarks wasn't your focus back then, though.

No, but spending was. Look, you can't do much about earmarks in the House. I did filibuster in the House for the first time in its history. Some of your critics have portrayed you as crazy. The Daily Show mocked your presentation against embryonic stem cell research. The Wall Street Journal has called you Coburn the Barbarian. Does this ever get to you?

No.... If I see a bill that is wrong, I'm going to hold it, no matter what the political or press pressure is. Members up here run to the press to try and make me look bad, but what they've now figured out is that it doesn't work. I'm not moving. I don't care how many editorials are written. If I think I'm right, I'm not going to move until I get a bill fixed. How many bills have you held up?

Well over 100. On the first of this year, I sent a letter to every member of the Senate that said, "I'm going to object to moving anything by unanimous consent if you are authorizing new spending without deauthorizing old spending."... The paradox in politics, I've found, is the more you stand on principle, the more criticism you get—but the more support you get from your constituency. What do you make of all the spending on the war in Iraq?

We should be paying for it.... But the politicians here are not willing to cut expenses here in the country or raise taxes. I don't want us to raise taxes because I know how much waste we've got. But politicians here won't make the hard choices of cutting waste in this government to be able to pay for this war. What they do is just charge it to our grandkids. And that's what we're doing.