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.
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.
You're still a practicing physician?
I delivered a baby last weekend. A 9-pound, 13-ounce girl. I've delivered over 4,000 babies.
Is being a physician at all similar to being a senator?
It's a real advantage to being a physician up here because you're taught about how to read people through their body language. You read all the signs instead of what they say.
I've heard you prefer being called Doctor Coburn to Senator Coburn.
Oh, it doesn't matter to me. You call me to dinner and I'll come.