SPEND an hour or so with U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, as The Oklahoman's editorial board did last week, and you're reminded that not everyone in Washington is driven first and foremost by political gain.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, is serving his second term in the Senate. He insists that it will be his last. During three terms in the U.S. House in the 1990s and throughout his time in the Senate, the medical doctor has been a spending hawk who's been just as critical of fellow Republicans as he has Democrats. Concerns about hurting the feelings of his colleagues aren't part of the deal. Nor does he see it as his job to make sure Oklahoma gets its share of pork-barrel spending.
Congress could use more members like Coburn, who puts country first. Unlike The Great Divider who occupies the White House, Coburn is willing to make the difficult decisions that are needed to help get the nation's fiscal house in order.
Today we present Coburn in his own words, about the most pressing concerns of the day. What he says is common sense to most of us. That it generally doesn't make a dent in Washington speaks volumes about the politicians and politics of our time.
“Government's 89 percent bigger than it was 10 years ago. Personal income's down 5 percent in this country. And they want to claim that we need more government to be able to solve our problems. And the problem is we're incapable of managing the government we have today.
“The biggest complaints we're having are from federal employees that may get sequestered. Here's a question: The average federal employee ... makes almost $59.84 an hour. That's total benefits, everything. Why didn't somebody say, 'Why don't we just take a pay cut and everybody keep working.'? Not even once suggested by the administration.”
“If the No. 1 goal is to get re-elected, then the No. 2 goal is not to offend anybody. If you won't challenge the parochial benefits of programs — even though they're ineffective — because you want to maintain your ability to get votes, you won't see people doing what needs to be done.”
“Ada has 15,000 people. They have an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent. They have 17 separate federal jobs programs running in Ada. Seventeen separate jobs programs, none of which are effective. They're effective at employing people in jobs programs.
“Why do we have 47 different job programs for the non-disabled, 55 for the disabled? We spend $23 billion on them per year. Not one of them has a metric of whether it's actually giving someone a life skill to earn a living — not one of them. And all but three of them overlap one another. Why are we doing that? No one can give you an answer. And nobody will fix it.”
“The No. 1 thing running in Oklahoma minds right now is there's no confidence in the federal government. And it's almost to a paranoia level: ‘Not only do I not have confidence, I don't trust you to do the right thing in my long-term interests.' I think that's dangerous for us as a society — very dangerous.”
“Remember IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? What was the commitment that the federal government made on funding for that? It was 40 percent of the cost. We've never given more than 21 percent of the cost. We won't have the money to give (to cover Medicaid expansion). Even in the first couple years at 100 percent, it won't be there. So if you're betting on getting 90 percent of that refunded to the state, it's a bad bet, because it isn't going to happen. There isn't the money there. When interest rates change — and they're going to — and they go back to historical norms of about 5.8 percent, we're going to have an additional $650 billion a year in interest costs based on our debt today. It'll be much higher by the time it gets here.”
“Start treating health care like every other resource in the country. Create a real market that's transparent, created where payment is connected with the purchase. And American consumers, they're the best buyers in the world at everything else, they will lower the cost of health care.
“Our total care will decline rapidly in this country under the Affordable Care Act, the quality of care — plus we're going to ration Medicare.”
“What you should be encouraged about is that the American people are starting to wake up. We're seeing about twice as many people come out (for town hall meetings), which means they're interested. I'm getting about twice as many letters from Oklahomans as I ever got before. Americans are waking up.”
“Washington has bought into the way that Washington operates. Their big story is to say that things don't work. I would tell you, look at where we are in terms of spending. I'd tell you things work too well. We're spending money we don't have on things we don't need, and you're getting votes for it all the time — bipartisan votes.
“There is a consensus there's a problem. The president's said, ‘I know we have to fix Medicare. I know we have to fix Social Security.' But you won't hear him one time in a speech say, ‘You know the average American gets $330,000 worth of health care from Medicare but put in $110,000.' He won't go out and describe what the problem is because he doesn't want to have to be the president that solves it.”
“You've got to give him (Obama) credit. He's an ideologue. He actually believes in socialism. He thinks that's the way to solve the problem. And it's an elitist view that says Washington knows better than what the individual family or statesman (does).
“When he said he wanted sequester to hurt, he meant it. Because I said, ‘I'll lead the charge to get you the flexibility to make sequester work.' He said, ‘I'll veto it.' I said, ‘You can't mean that.' He said, “I do.' He said, ‘It's going to be painful. I'm going to teach you guys a lesson in terms of we're not going to cut the size of government, because the government isn't the problem. (Not enough) revenue is the problem.'”
“Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? Everyone told me I'd never get rid of earmarks. We'd never get rid of them. And we've pretty well eliminated 98, 99 percent of them — off one event which the American public just vomited over, couldn't believe it was happening. And we built a coalition and we changed it. So we can change, but it requires a seminal event like the Bridge to Nowhere to be able to do it.”