Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Some have dubbed this month in Oklahoma as a “farewell tour” for U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee. If that’s right, it is in some ways a long goodbye, as he remains passionately involved in debate and policy.
Monday, Dr. Tom held the first in a series of town hall meetings which will be his last as senator. He also met with constituents privately, interacted with state reporters and sat for an interview with CapitolBeatOK.
In a drive-time radio interview, reflecting on the interactions with Oklahomans that generally draw hundreds, he said, “The Town Hall meetings have been important to me.
They are a chance for people to vent, and that is good. I am looking forward to this time with my constituents.”
As was the case during six years in the U.S. House and ten years in the Senate, Coburn’s primary focus remains federal spending, the national debt, and the growth of government.
Intensifying his frustration is the national gridlock that prevents movement toward resolutions of those issues.
“There have been 40 bills passed by the House that would increase employment but the Senate won’t even take up those bills.
The problem is [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid,” Coburn said.
The junior senator from the Sooner State remains fully engaged in the goals that first brought him the nation’s capital in the 1990s, and his return for the past decade.
His departure from office will come this winter, after election of his successor in November, to fill a two-year term.
Concerning the future of the nation, he reflected, “I am hopeful if you start sending great leaders to Washington.” However, “I am not hopeful in the short term.”
He gave one reason why he is pessimistic, “If you look at the Veterans’ Administration bill, it was reworded and changed and some said that improved it. I believe we rewarded bad behavior with that vote. In Congress, a dedication to careerism, getting reelected, frustrated good policy.”
Concerning his own future, Coburn said, “I intend to travel around the country, to state Legislatures, and encourage them to fashion a constitutional amendment that would have the effect of restoring the Tenth Amendment and restore constitutional limits on government.
“For most politicians, the tensions between getting reelected and the best interest of the country have usually been resolved in favor of reelection.
There is a lack of confidence -- a marked lack of confidence, and a marked increased in that lack of confidence -- in our elected officials.
“Taking those steps would unleash this country’s performance again. Ours is an economy that could grow 3-4 percent a year, if we kept government to a proper, limited role. I am frustrated that so many states lack a member of the Senate who is willing to offer the viewpoint of their state.”
A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll found Americans are more critical than ever of the Affordable Care Act. Coburn said, “People are figuring it all out. They brag about how many million have signed up for the new health care coverage. Then, we are finding out that six million have lost their former insurance coverage. The ones who are able to hang on to insurance are facing $5,000 deductibles. It’s not working and it’s not going to work.
“One effect is that people will drop going to the doctor regularly.
“This is so worrisome. If you fall into the average family income category, and if you get one of those new high-deductible $5000 policies, it will take 10 percent of your family income before your insurance actually kicks in.”
He is not without hope, saying, “In the near-term, the best way to tackle the problem is create Medical Savings Accounts. We’re probably in for a 10-15 year battle.”
Concerning his personal health, which triggered Coburn’s early departure from the Senate, he said, “My faith is the foundation of my life. No one can battle for good without faith.
If you think you are in control, you’ve got a problem right there. The health challenges I’m going through are no fun.”
Coburn’s comments, as reported above, came in an interview with Scott Mitchell and this reporter on Radio Station KOKC, AM 1520 and FM 103.1, this week.
Later, in an interview with this reporter at his downtown Oklahoma Senate office, Coburn was reticent about detailing an idea or ideas he might have for national reform which he has not yet shared.
He smiled when pressed on the issue, telling CapitolBeatOK, “I have some, but I’m not willing to offer them yet because if I do I won’t be effective in my remaining time in the Senate . …
“A big problem is that people are still buying into party labels rather than looking closely at the individual votes of members of Congress.
Here in Oklahoma, the Republicans worked so hard to get to real power, to control of most things in government, that there may be reluctance to look past party labels. My goodness, it’s amazing for the party to control every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. But what’s the result?”
We are growing government, this writer replied.
“We’re growing government,” Coburn pressed. “What is the reason? How did we get there? It is absurd to say that you can’t curtail the taxes and still govern. We have people who worry more about elections than what they promised to do in previous elections. We have politicians and people worrying more about elections than what matters.
It’s the same problem in Washington.”
Pointing a drawing of the late Ronald Reagan adorning his office wall, Coburn continued, “We need to observe Reagan’s imperative: Trust, but verify. And that’s true with our own people even more than with others.
“In Washington, we have had only 12 opportunities this entire year to offer real changes, amendments, to important bills. That is ludicrous.
“It all originated when the Democrats and Harry Reid had absolute control for awhile. They changed the rules by breaking the rules. Reid has not been a good Senate Leader.
He’s done great damage to the Senate and to the country. I don’t think anybody really knows how much damage he has done.”
Looking to future challenges, Coburn elaborated on his personal plans, “It will take time, lots of time, to move this ship of state forward. These problems will take years to turn around.
I know that you can’t ignore the lessons of history, of the past. The core principles of American government are freedom, liberty, limited government.
The government is involved in things it should never nave become involved in.
“You asked earlier about what I plan to do. I will travel the country. I am looking at a non-profit. I don’t know if it will be successful. I just want to help rebalance the country, restore limits, get our country back to where we need to. I will support a balanced budget, advocate for a constitutional convention of the states.”
He says critics of a possible “run-away” national constitutional convention are wrong: “It’s the system we have. Any changes would have to face the process the Constitution envisions. The people decide. They would either pass it or not. I trust the people more than those who say this would become a run-away situation and we could not predict the outcome.
Looking back, what has been the most satisfying aspect of the Senate job?
Quintessential Coburn: “Coming home every weekend.”
As for the most worrisome of unsatisfying aspect of his work, Coburn pointed to “The lack of leadership, principled visionary leadership, around the country and in Washington. We have to be intellectually honest about where we are. Don’t deny the problems that are right there in front of you.”
He was again coy when encouraged to name his best Republican colleagues, those he expects to carry on his work for fiscal prudence: “I would tell you, but then I might forget somebody and they would be upset.”
As for fiscal conservatives among Democrats, he pointed to Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Angus King of Maine, saying, “They are common sense leaders who want to solve problems.”
Asked to name one thing he would do right now if he could, Dr. Coburn replied, “I’d move the Capitol out of D.C. That would cut the cost of living for employees by 40 to 50 percent in many cases. Why not put some of the departments out in the states? I know it costs 2 ½ times as much to live in DC as it does here. We’ve got to address that.”
In some ways, Coburn’s formal farewells to the state he has served long began in April, when the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) held its annual Citizenship Award Dinner. At that event, Coburn and another doctor, nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, were honored for their commitment to principles of limited government.