Finding an elected official willing to speak out against the excessive financial waste that’s present in our system is not always an easy task. Finding someone who speaks out against it in vague, generic terms, now that’s easy. There’s no shortage of officials who say things like, “there’s too much waste in Washington.” Or, “we have to cut the pork out of the system etc.” But finding someone who devotes hundreds of his and his team’s man hours to studying the problem. To going through it all in a thorough and comprehensive way. Someone who identifies specific examples of waste and puts them on record, even when some of those examples benefit members of his own party and in some cases may even benefit his own constituents. That’s not so common.
So whenever such an example comes to light, I feel we need to draw attention to it and recognize it for how uncommon it is. So I’d like to spend some time today talking about a Senator from Oklahoma, Senator Tom Coburn.
Tom Coburn is a Republican. He has been in the Senate since 2004. He’s currently serving in his second term. Prior to that he served 6 years in the House of Representatives from 1994 to 2000. Ever since his early days in the House, he has been focused on fiscal responsibility. He advocated vigorously, during his time in the House, for reducing the size of the federal budget. Those issues, among others, led him into frequent conflict with then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. But it’s his time in the Senate where Senator Coburn has truly gained a reputation as a fiscal hawk. Where he’s really focused on wasteful government spending, specifically earmarks, and made decreasing and eliminating those, his main goal.
I first became aware of Senator Coburn’s focus on eliminating waste by stumbling upon a feature on his website called the “Pork Report.” The Pork Report details wasteful government programs that Senator Coburn and his staff have uncovered. New editions are put out once or twice a week. And they’re full of great, well actually, maddening examples of bloated government programs and wasteful spending.
For each entry there is often a department or branch of government designated, there is a little background on the specific earmark, and there is usually a dollar amount specified as well. Scanning through some of the entries, you really get an idea of the exorbitant amount of waste, that is currently present in our system. A few of my favorites that I’ve read over the weeks include:
-$18.7 million dollars a year spent on junk mail, often in the form of self-promotional literature, sent to constituents by members of Congress.
-$80,000 spent by the Air Force Academy on a Stonehenge-like worship center for pagans.
-A claim for unemployment insurance filed by an education official from Philadelphia, even after receiving a $1 million buyout of her contract from the city of Philadelphia.
Now these are just a few of the examples, and there are many, that Senator Coburn and his staff present on his website. I recommend that you pay the website a visit (and there’s a link on our webpage to the site) and read through some of the examples for yourself. It won’t be pleasant but I think it’s information everyone should know.
In addition to the “Pork Report” Senator Coburn has also published a few larger, more comprehensive reports. One such report is his “Back in Black” report. Published last July, it’s a 600 page plan for getting the US out of debt, or back in the black. It identifies $9 trillion dollars in specific savings that can be achieved over a 10-year period by taking specific budget control steps. The plan includes such suggestions as freezing federal employee pay (including the pay of members of Congress) and cutting duplication in programs such as paying pharmaceutical companies for drugs already covered by federal health programs.
The plan goes through just about every major government office and agency, from the office of the President to the EPA. It identifies instances of wasteful spending for each agency. It recommends some belt-tightening suggestions, and it recommends a lot of spending cuts. But it also tackles, some of the biggest challenges facing our federal budget at the moment.
The plan addresses Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which all agree are the biggest drivers of our national debt. Senator Coburn doesn’t just make vague generalities when it comes to these programs. He makes very specific and some would say, tough suggestions for these programs.
For example, he proposes transferring management of Medicaid to the states. And also proposes such specific measures as reforming the way payments are made for oxygen equipment, as well as the fees for eye surgeries for seniors.
He also proposes raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits over time. And changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated. Many of these new calculations would more accurately reflect present day costs of living, but as a result many beneficiaries would see the amount of their benefits decrease. Senator Coburn contends these proposals would strengthen the program over time. But nevertheless, these can hardly be considered safe proposals.
Now when it comes to fiscal responsibility, Senator Coburn has shown the willingness to both go against his own party as well as work across the aisle, with members of the opposite party. In 2006, Senator Coburn worked with then Senator, now our current President, Barack Obama to create a law that made information about all government spending, public and accessible through a website. The website, usaspending.gov lists all awards and contracts handed out by the federal government and who those funds went to. It has a searchable database that allows people to see exactly where their tax dollars are going, and people can search the spending by state, or date, or a number of other filters. Before this website was created, there was no one resource where this information was readily available. Information such as this was pretty hard to come by. This website has simplified, and consolidated this information into one resource that tax payers can now turn to, to find out exactly how their tax dollars are being spent.
Senator Coburn has also shown the willingness to challenge members of his own party on the subject of excessive spending. He has earned the nickname Dr. No for his willingness to block any bill or amendment that he feels is fiscally irresponsible. One of the most noteworthy examples of his willingness to do so is the battle over the infamous bridge to nowhere project in Alaska in 2005.
Now, the bridge to nowhere is a proposed bridge construction plan that would connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska with nearby Gravina island. Proponents say that the bridge would replace existing ferry service to the island, and would provide better service to the town’s airport, which is located on the island. The project has been assailed as the poster case for excessive and wasteful Washington spending. Mainly because the price tag for the project, close to $400 million, is seen as outrageously out of proportion with the needs of the project. Opponents of the project site the fact that Gravina Island is home to only 50 residents.
Senator Coburn introduced an amendment that would have diverted funds from this bridge, to the rebuilding of a bridge in Louisiana that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which only a few months earlier, had completely devastated the city of New Orleans. That amendment caused quite an uproar in the Senate. With much of the opposition coming from Senator Coburn’s own party. Then republican Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, threatened to resign his seat in the Senate if Senator Coburn’s amendment passed. The amendment was ultimately defeated by a vote of 82-14.
But Senator Coburn’s opposition to his party doesn’t just apply to isolated spending bills here and there. He also supports structural changes to Federal spending that has long enjoyed support from his own party. In his back in black report, for example, he proposes ending tax breaks and subsidies to millionaires, and restraining Social Security benefits for high income earners. He also proposes modifying, and in some cases eliminating altogether, excessive farm subsidy programs. In all, he has devoted about 60 pages in the report to identifying special interest tax breaks that should be eliminated. One of which, the Indian Employer Tax Credit, highly effects businesses in his own home state of Oklahoma.
Just, one another note I’d like to mention on Senator Coburn, he is up for reelection in 2016. But he has already stated that he will not run again. When he was in the House, he pledged to serve only 3 terms. And in 2001, after serving three terms, he kept his word, and retired from Congress. He has made a similar pledge to serve only two terms in the Senate. In an era where it seems some elected officials only care about getting re-elected, Senator Coburn has decided to serve only a few terms and move on from public service. These self-imposed term limits are virtually unheard of in this day and age.
Generally speaking, Senator Coburn feels the size of the federal government is too large and needs to be reined in. Now we’re not going to all agree with every criticism he levels at every program. And not every solution he proposes is going to be ideal. At heart, he is a small government Republican. It may very well be that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the size of the federal government, no matter how small it got. But that does not take away from the fact, that some of the programs he identifies are indeed wasteful, and do need to be re-examined. And he is willing to take the lead on these issues. To at least, begin the conversation. And get us talking about, and debating issues that are truly important. And that is to be applauded.