WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn laughed.
“No, no,” he said last week when asked whether he had any regrets about retiring after the current congressional session.
“I made this decision a year and a half ago.”
His exit is quickly approaching.
Congress will be in recess until early September and meet relatively few days this fall as elections approach. Coburn, R-Muskogee, still has some business to complete and that includes holding his final town hall meetings — in essence, a farewell tour of a state he has represented in the U.S. Senate for nearly 10 years.
That tour begins in Oklahoma City on Monday.
Hearing the concerns of his fellow Oklahomans “will kind of invigorate me for the last three or four months that I’m here,” Coburn said. “And that’s the purpose of it, to reconnect with the people of Oklahoma and to continue to carry their message up here.”
Coburn, who also spent six years in the U.S. House, has held dozens of town hall meetings. There were raucous ones, like those in the aftermath of the financial industry bailout in 2008 and others during consideration of the Affordable Care Act.
There have also been remarks that “exploded nationally,” he said, as when he called former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a “nice person” (and was booed) and the time last summer he said President Barack Obama appeared “perilously close” to the constitutional grounds for impeachment.
Coburn hasn’t been slowing down as his political career nears its end.
Just last week:
He released a report on the Homeland Security Department’s failure to secure chemical facilities from terrorist attacks, and a committee approved legislation that he co-authored to improve the security of such facilities.
A Senate committee approved legislation by Coburn and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to give taxpayers more information about financial settlements reached between the federal government and private corporations. The details of many such settlements are frequently kept secret.
The Government Accountability Office released a report requested by Coburn on overlapping Agriculture Department programs for farmers.
He tried to block legislation reforming veterans health care services because of the increased funding.
And he prevented other bills from being passed on the Senate’s fast track that he said authorized more spending without offsets elsewhere in the budget.
In the next few months, he said, his staff will continue generating reports. Among those will be one about the proliferation of federal agency police forces.
“We don’t have a national police force — nor should we — but now all these agencies are trying to develop one,” Coburn said. “So we’re going to be real critical and investigate that and the costs associated with that.”
And with businesses clamoring for an overhaul of the U.S. tax code, Coburn and his staff are developing a comprehensive analysis of who benefits from various loopholes and tax breaks.
“We’re doing a complete look at the whole tax code and going to be able to have that available for Congress,” he said.
“We have billions of dollars that are paid to the well-heeled and well-connected that doesn’t incentivize anything other than the rich getting richer. So we’re going to expose all that in our study of the U.S. tax code.”
On the race to replace him
Coburn stayed quiet through most of the six months that U.S. Rep. James Lankford, of Oklahoma City, and state Rep. T.W. Shannon, of Lawton, battled for the Republican nomination to replace him. But as the race neared the finish line, Coburn vented about the negative ads being run by outside groups, and he issued a strong defense of Lankford.
Lankford, who was well-positioned to beat Shannon when the race began, wound up winning the nomination in a rout and is heavily favored to claim the seat in November.
Asked what was learned, if anything, from the GOP race, Coburn said, “That negative advertising doesn’t work so well. People are tired of it, sick of it. What they’d like to do is have some hope that people have a vision for how to fix things, how to solve problems ... How do you make the best things possible happen.
“And I think Lankford’s worked hard at trying to do that. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything, but (he’s) trying to get some things done. And that’s not playing inside baseball. That’s looking pragmatically at situations and making a decision about it. Then you go home and defend it. At town hall meetings, the biggest rip I got was the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program).
“It was a tough vote but it was the right vote at the time because we didn’t have any other options.”
Shannon, he said, “is a great young man, and things got out of control in that race in terms of negative advertising and I think it hurt him much more than it hurt James Lankford. He has a great future in Oklahoma still to come.
“But the games being played by the outside forces — they’re a wild card. If they think they can influence elections, they need to try to do it positively rather than negatively. People are sick of it. We have enough division already.”
Coburn said it didn’t bother him that the outside groups backing Shannon and Lankford didn’t have to reveal the source of their money.
“I don’t know if they all truly followed the letter of the law,” he said. “I guess that remains to be seen.”
If people want to support candidates through organizations that keep donors secret, “I don’t have any problem with that,” Coburn said. “But you ought to do it in a way that demonstrates integrity and accuracy.”
At a glance
Sen. Tom Coburn has released the following schedule for his final town hall meetings in Oklahoma: