Friday, April 29, 2005

Update on Dr. Tom Coburn

In my post earlier this month on the concept of citizen-legislators -- an alien concept, to be sure, in today's environment -- I pointed to the current case of Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who is the object of potential sanctions by the Senate ethics committee -- because he wants to deliver babies and treat patients (at cost!) in his hometown medical practice.

Veteran Washington journalist Robert Novak has taken up Coburn's cause in his latest column for the Chicago Sun-Times (also syndicated around the country). Novak points out that the Senate is not pleased with Coburn because he's uppity: he has the nerve, as a freshman Senator, to draw attention to how that legislative body screws the taxpayers.

Writes Novak:

In a legislative body where members spend much of their time off the Senate floor begging for money, it is worthy of Kafka that the only pending ethical proceeding involves Coburn's concept of the citizen-legislator. Unless the rules are changed, Coburn must either break his campaign pledge of continuing baby deliveries or leave the Senate.

His early departure from the Senate would occasion rejoicing there, as he showed April 20. Not observing a freshman senator's customary silent period, he proposed reducing the $592 million for a new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad provided by the emergency supplemental appropriations bill. Coburn argued that because only $106 million could be spent over the next two years, "we are going to have $486 million hanging out there that will be rescinded and spent on something else." Instead of settling for the usual voice vote, Coburn insisted on a roll call (which he lost by only 54-45).
Noting how Coburn, through his actions and not just rhetoric, styles himself as the taxpayers' friend, Novak continues:
During six years in the House, Coburn's campaign against pork-barrel spending made him anathema to Republican leaders. He planned a lower profile in the Senate, but the ethics complaint made that impossible. He also had an agenda ensuring him more attention than ordinary freshmen: bringing free market principles to health care, oversight of federal programs (as chairman of the Federal Financial Management Subcommittee) and assaulting congressional pork. For the first time since Phil Gramm left the Senate, Sen. John McCain had an anti-pork partner.

In the April 20 debate on the supplemental appropriations bill, Coburn was the only senator to support McCain against Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was mandating that a $40 million project go to a "Philadelphia-based company." "I believe this is the wrong way we should be doing things," Coburn told the Senate. "We need to stop. Our future depends on the integrity of a budgeting and appropriations process that is not based on politics but is based on having the future best will for our country."

It is hard to exaggerate how much Coburn's rhetoric riles pork-loving colleagues, explaining the absurd ethics proceeding against him. In answering charges that he is a part-time senator, Coburn wrote constituents that he will continue to "devote at least 60-70 hours per week to my Senate duties." Other senators spend as much time as Coburn back home but mainly for fund-raising. They are not stopped from padding their bankrolls with book royalties, farm income and investments.
If the Kafkaesque case of Dr. Tom Coburn does nothing more than draw attention to the double-standards and double-dealing in the U.S. Senate, he will have served his purpose and can retire in good conscience.

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