A Conversation with the Senate’s ‘Most Dangerous Creature’

Published April 1, 2006

There’s a reason nationally syndicated columnist George Will recently wrote Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is “the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate.” As Will noted, Coburn is “someone simply uninterested in being popular.”

That attitude is reflected in Coburn’s leadership of the “Fiscal Watch Team,” an informal group of seven Republican senators who have repeatedly jabbed at fellow lawmakers for embracing pork-barrel politics and allowing an unprecedented growth of government. Largely because of the Fiscal Watch Team–whose members also include Sam Brownback (R-KS), Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Ensign (R-NV), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and John Sununu (R- NH)–two Alaska pork projects last fall were ridiculed as “Bridges to Nowhere” and became national symbols of waste and abuse of the public treasury.

Coburn, 57, is a medical doctor who was elected to the Senate in 2004. Though he is a Republican, Coburn does not hold back in criticizing party leaders who have allowed pork-barrel spending to explode under their watch. Last year’s spending bills were packed with nearly 14,000 “earmarks,” as the pork projects are called.

Budget & Tax News Managing Editor Steve Stanek recently spoke with Coburn about his work.

Stanek: You’ve been working hard to get fellow lawmakers to control spending and end pork-barrel politics. Where do you plan to head with this in the next few months?

Coburn: The American public is going to determine where things head in the months ahead. The more aware they are of how things aren’t working right in Washington, whether it’s the earmarks or spending increases on things that are not a priority for most of the country, the more public pressure they’ll apply to Congress, and the more you’ll see things change.

The earmark amendments I offered last year and that I will offer this year will awaken the American public. [Editor’s note: On February 9 Coburn and Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Evan Bayh (D-IN), John Ensign (R-NV), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Sununu (R-NH), and Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced the Pork-Barrel Reduction Act, which includes a variety of measures aimed at reducing pork-barrel spending and making earmarks more transparent to the public.]

When they start seeing we have this mountain of debt, we’re in a war, and we have the problems we’ve had on the Gulf Coast, nobody in their right mind is going to believe these are priority spending items.

It’s especially bad because we’re borrowing the money to do these things from our grandchildren, and they are going to have to pay it back many times over. We have to highlight this and hope the American public will apply pressure so the Congress changes.

Stanek: Why are you fighting this fight? There are 100 senators, but it’s just you and a handful of others who are doing this.

Coburn: First of all because it’s right. Second, because I believe in being loyal to the rich heritage this country has. And that heritage is one generation will sacrifice for the next generation to create opportunity–economic, social, and cultural opportunity. We’ve not seen that lately. As a matter of fact, we’re seeing the opposite. We’re stealing the economic future from our kids and grandkids for us today.

Stanek: There have been lots of stories about shady politics and wasteful spending. The public already knows it. How do you reach them on this?

Coburn: Sunshine is a great thing. We’re going to put sunshine on every earmark this year. People are going to have to defend their earmarks. We may not get rid of all of them, but the American public is going to know they’re there. They’re going to be in the bills, and we’re not going to pass any bills within 12 hours of the time they come in. We’re going to read the bills, and we’re going to insist on the regular order that will allow us to make the hard choices we need to be making.

Stanek: Aren’t you getting a hard fight from a lot of your fellow senators?

Coburn: Not a lot of people are going to stand up and say I don’t want you to look at my earmark.

Stanek: Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) threatened to resign from the Senate last year rather than give up $453 million in spending that had been earmarked for the two proposed bridges in Alaska. And House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL) seems to be saying he doesn’t want people looking at earmarks. I know he’s House Speaker and you’re in the Senate, but just the other day he defended earmarks.

Coburn: He believes a congressman knows where to put a traffic light better than anyone else. I disagree. I think people in Chicago know better where to put a traffic light in Chicago than the congressman does. We should leave the money in Chicago. I believe the bigger the government you’re going to have, the less freedom you’re going to have at home. You’re going to have things dictated by us lawmakers in Washington taking 25 or 30 percent of your money and then telling you where to put your traffic light. So I disagree with Speaker Hastert.

Stanek: Tell me just a little about the Fiscal Watch Team. How did you Fiscal Watch members come together on this?

Coburn: Oh, a couple of us started it and built a small group, trying to address the very real problems we have today in terms of overspending. After Katrina struck, we just went out and started getting things going. [Editor’s note: Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, causing levees in New Orleans to break and flooding the city. Hundreds of thousands of city residents still have not been able to return home. Congress has already approved more than $100 billion in spending for relief and rebuilding.]

Stanek: Is there anything you and the other members of the team are particularly proud of having accomplished to this point?

Coburn: I wouldn’t list specific things. Our goal is to change the culture of Congress so you don’t spend the future away and you start holding people accountable.

Look at the defense bill this year. The defense bill had $11 billion of earmarks in it for things people want to do back home rather than run the military, fight the war, and protect our troops. That’s improper. It wasn’t publicized. The American people don’t even know it.

If you took that $11 billion and put it in things that are actually effective for the defense of this country, rather than spend it on people who are politicians’ friends and political supporters, we’d be much better off. If the American people are informed, they’re going to hold people accountable. What we’re trying to do is keep them informed.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.