Acton Institute Powerblog

Tom Coburn: Remembering an American statesman

A “statesman” is defined as “a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.” On March 28, America lost such a person when former U.S. Representative, Senator, and Doctor Tom Coburn died at the age of 72. Statesmen (and women) are needed in times of pandemic-induced uncertainty. Here’s how Coburn exhibited the traits necessary to be a statesman.

Coburn was a member of the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” which came to town promising change and self-imposed term limits. He was one of the few to uphold his term limits promise. His steadfast commitment to his ideals brought joy to conservatives and grief to most everyone who played by Washington’s conventional rules, regardless of their party affiliation.

Few on Capitol Hill were as loved, or as hated, as Coburn. When he got to D.C., he did not hold his fire. He spoke out against what he saw as Newt Gingrich’s violation of conservative principles when the latter was Speaker of the House. Coburn’s first Senate victory was opposed by practically the entire Washington and Oklahoma GOP establishments.

Candor and integrity would become his defining traits. Unlike most politicians, Coburn cared most about accomplishing legislative victories for the American people and not political advantage, polls, or being “liked.” His book The Debt Bomb was a frank assessment of how America’s high debt is devastating to our nation’s survival. He regularly exposed just how wasteful, unnecessary, and duplicative that deficit spending is.

His famed annual “Wastebook” highlighted billions of dollars of indefensible government spending. (In time, Sen. James Lankford would keep up the tradition by issuing his own “Federal Fumbles” reports.) It was Coburn who exposed the Bridge to Nowhere in 2006 and, with it, his fellow Republican who proposed it.

His opposition to earmarks meant not just speaking against them but refusing to seek them for his own constituents. His principled public stand was largely responsible for the heralded 2011 earmark ban. He played a major role in ending federal ethanol subsidies. And it was Coburn whose 2010 legislative amendment still requires the Government Accountability Office to report each year on on duplicated federal programs.

His dedication to results meant that he had no problem criticizing members of both parties. For instance, under the 1974 Budget Act, Congress has to complete the federal budget by April of each year. However, Congress spent years either missing the deadline or not passing a budget at all. Coburn declared in 2010 that everyone in Congress should be in jail for breaking the law.

But his conviction-driven career meant that he would work across the aisle with anyone who wanted to advance commonsense solutions. In 2006, he worked with Senators Tom Carper, D-Del., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., to create a public database of groups that receive government money. He also introduced several bipartisan healthcare reform bills.

True leaders prepare for their legacies that will far outlive them. Coburn did the same. His entire focus was on the future, which was why he voted for the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations to cut trillions from projected deficits even though he viewed the recommendations as imperfect.

Coburn would do his best to change less-than-perfect legislation, regardless of the political cost. He held up a healthcare bill to help 9/11 first responders because of wasteful spending provisions. Despite getting hammered by foes, Coburn cut $2 billion from the bill’s final cost—getting rid of loopholes and entitlements that would have been financially costly and not accomplished the bill’s goals.

There were times when Coburn voted the wrong way, but even then, he did it for the right reasons. The one time I met Coburn in person—invited as a low-ranking congressional staffer by his then-chief of staff to an intimate gathering of conservatives—I asked him why he violated his free-market principles to vote for the 2008 bank bailout. He explained that he was genuinely afraid for the country as the financial sector took down the world economy, and voting for TARP was, in his mind, necessary. Afterwards, I asked Coburn if I’d stepped over the line as a low-ranking staffer. He replied, “If I can’t answer that question, I don’t belong up here.” He later graciously granted an interview to discuss his work to reduce unnecessary spending, reform entitlements, and balance the federal budget.

Coburn also supported tax hikes in 2011 due to his grave concerns about the national debt. Coburn undermined perhaps his greatest all-time policy proposal—the 600-page Back in Black plan, which proposed $6 trillion in cuts over 10 years—by rejoining a bipartisan group that aimed to raise taxes and cut less than two-thirds of Coburn’s plan. As Daniel Mitchell noted at the time, his intentions were good, but the policy was poor, and the group’s proposals ended up going nowhere.

And Coburn never feared taking the heat for his actions. He was perhaps most vilified within the activist ranks of the GOP when he opposed the 2013 federal government shutdown, which was supported by the Tea Party. However, Coburn pointed out that there was no path to repealing the Affordable Care Act through that tactic (there wasn’t), and his critics were confusing tactical disagreements with philosophical differences (he was right). He faced the criticism head-on as one of the few members of Congress to hold a constituent town hall in 2013. And after the way he humbly, but firmly, heard their outraged comments, he received applause from his constituents.

Coburn had the courage of his convictions because of his deep Christian faith. He served as a deacon in his church. And he put his values into practice in Congress.

He truly valued life. His pro-life views became clear in his voting record and also in his staffing choices, such as tapping longtime pro-life leader Michael Schwartz as his chief of staff. He also continued to serve pregnant women even while he served in Congress, reportedly delivering 4,000 babies during his long career.

Coburn’s faith led him to weigh his duties against his abilities. He resigned from Congress during his third bout with cancer. In doing so, he flouted the popular Capitol Hill tradition of either leaving for money or staying in office until death. But he realized his illness would require missing votes and not serving his constituents. He faced his future privately, with the aid of his family. Clearly, Coburn was a man seeking solutions, not headlines or personal glory.

Were he still in Congress in 2017, Republicans wouldn’t have been caught flat-footed when asked to come up with a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, after they spent seven years railing against it. Coburn would have had several plans ready to go to protect the next three generations of retiring Americans.

If he were in Congress today, he would criticize our nation’s leaders for their partisan failings, calling out:

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for hijacking the COVID-19 stimulus plan with unrelated leftist policies;
  • President Donald Trump for his short-tempered and impulsive behavior; and
  • the media for fanning the flames of panic instead of providing the straight facts.

Then, he would have come up with an effective, constitutional response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s what statesmen do.

Tom Coburn, RIP.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Dustin Siggins

Dustin Siggins is CEO of Proven Media Solutions. A practicing Catholic, he was previously a political journalist covering the federal budget, abortion, and other issues on and off Capitol Hill.