Tom Coburn's farewell to the Senate

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Oklahoma's U. S. Senator Tom Coburn did not suffer from senioritis. He made the most of every minute of the final weeks of his ten years in the Senate.

On December 9, Coburn issued the latest and last in his long-running series of reports on government waste. Tax DecoderTom_Coburn-Tax_Decoder-2014.pdf, an encyclopedic 320-page report covering "more than 165 tax expenditures worth over $900 billion this year and more than $5 trillion over the next five years."

The Tax Decoder report looks at tax breaks both well-known and obscure which complicate the tax code and boost the deficit, often enabling lavish living at taxpayer expense. In true Coburn style, there are no sacred cows -- the report notes the special status of Oklahoma's former tribal territory on p. 213, calls for an end to the parsonage allowance on p. 192, and devotes an entire chapter to non-taxable military compensation -- but the information is provided in a thorough and dispassionate manner. Your mind will boggle at the subsections of 501(c) that you never knew existed, and yes, it's very possible for people to get very wealthy off of a non-profit organization. Here's Coburn's press conference announcing the Tax Decoder report. There's even a 60-second trailer for the report:

Coburn's final foray against fiscal futility was to object to a well-intentioned but wasteful and duplicative bill:

While well-intentioned, H.R. 5059 would do little to change or improve the deplorable situation at the VA, which is providing substandard medical care for the country's military heroes. The bill creates several new programs at the VA and authorizes $22 million in new federal spending. In almost every case, however, the VA already has the tools and authorities it needs to address these serious problems. Further concerns with the legislation can be viewed here.

"Congress should hold VA bureaucrats accountable for their failing programs and substandard medical care instead of passing legislation that will do little to solve the tragic challenge of veteran suicides." said Senator Coburn. "Our military heroes deserve more than false promises. It is dishonest for Congress to pretend that passing yet another bill will finally solve the challenges plaguing the VA."

As always, Coburn's colleagues found it easier to vote more money at a problem than to do the hard work of oversight of the money they'd already spent. As always, the drive-by media found it easier to snipe at Coburn for "hating veterans" than to pressure Coburn's colleagues to exercise the kind of oversight and reform that would actually help veterans.

Earlier in the year, Coburn produced an exposé of the shameful treatment of veterans at the hands of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

On his very last day as a senator, Coburn introduced legislation to "improve the integrity of the [Social Security] disability insurance program, support working Americans with disabilities, and protect benefits for current and future generations." The current system makes it too easy for some to game the system while others wait far too long to receive benefits, and it discourages disabled persons who want to work from doing so. From the beginning to the end of his congressional career, Coburn addressed the disconnect between good intentions and the actual effect of government programs.

Coburn's careful documentation of government waste proved to anyone who cared that we could solve the deficit problem. The lack of action in response proved that his colleagues -- and the voters who elected them -- aren't serious about fixing the problem.

Andrew Ferguson, writing in the Weekly Standard, salutes Coburn as "a model senator":

"In any election," Tom Coburn often says, "you should vote for the candidate who will give up the most if they win." All things being equal, we should prefer politicians who have accomplished something in their lives beyond government work--and who are willing to sacrifice it, at least temporarily, to serve the country at a cost to their convenience and comfort. During his 6 years in the House of Representatives and 10 more in the Senate, Coburn has embodied his own principle....

...Coburn calls himself a "citizen legislator," and the archaic title fits. Single-handed, he restored the phrase "public service" to good repute in Washington, at least for his admirers.

He's done so by being a pest. This is the kindest word we can come up with, though enemies both in and of out of his party prefer surlier tags like crank and headcase. Coburn commandeered every parliamentary maneuver available to a lone senator and used his mastery to slow the Senate down and draw attention to the untoward details of business-as-usual: absurd expenditures, cheap favors for the well-to-do, presidential appointments for dolts and clowns, and every imaginable accounting trick in service of parochial rather than national interests, all of it undertaken on borrowed money. His endless amendments and points of order became a kind of shaming, directed at people who long ago abandoned shame. Coburn trained an outsider's eye on the work of insiders and delivered the news, usually bad. "If we applied the same standards to Congress that we apply to Enron," he once said of congressional book-juggling, "everybody here would go to jail."

In his farewell speech to the Senate, Coburn paid tribute to congressional staff and the staff of oversight offices in the executive branch who gathered data for his reports and helped him craft reform legislation. He affirmed his faith in our country and our ability to solve our problems if we choose to do so, and he saluted his Democratic committee counterpart, Tom Carper of Delaware, for his willingness to work together to solve problems. He recalled the brilliance of the Founders, their insight into human nature and the causes of failure of the republics that preceded ours, and their understanding of the blessings of limited government.

Coburn called his colleagues' attention to their oath of office and noted that it makes no mention of the Senator's state:

Your State isn't mentioned one time in that oath. Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties. It is not to provide benefits for your State. That is where we differ. That is where my conflict with my colleagues has come. It is nice to be able to do things for your State, but that isn't our charge. Our charge is to protect the future of our country by upholding the Constitution and ensuring the liberty that is guaranteed there is protected and preserved.

Coburn pointed out the power of one Senator to advance, change, or stop legislation. The rules involved are not "arcane," as they are often described, but rarely used, even though they exist to protect liberty and to force compromise. He called his colleagues to exercise knowledgeable oversight:

Each Member of the Senate has a unique role to participate and practice oversight, to hold the government accountable, and that is part of our duties, except most often that is the part of our duties that is most ignored.

To know how to reach a destination, you must first know where you are, and without oversight -- effective, vigorous oversight -- you will never solve anything. You cannot write a bill to fix an agency unless you have an understanding of the problem, and you can only know this by conducting oversight, asking the tough questions, holding the bureaucrats accountable, find out what works and what doesn't, and know what has already been done.

Effective oversight is an effective tool to expose government overreach and wasteful spending, but it also markedly exposes where we lose our liberty and our essential freedoms....

...quite frankly, we don't make great decisions because we don't have the knowledge. Then what knowledge we do have we transfer to a bureaucracy to make decisions about it when we should have been guiding those things.

You can see video of Tom Coburn's farewell address and read the official transcript after the jump.

Here is the complete text of Sen. Tom Coburn's farewell speech:


Farewell to the Senate

Mr. COBURN. Mr. President, following in the traditions of the Senate, I come to the floor to speak about my experience in the Senate. Unfortunately, this will not be the last time I speak, much to the chagrin of many of you, as I have some adamant opposition to some of the things we are doing.

But I nevertheless will try to put in context some of my feelings and thoughts about the great privilege that has been granted to me by the people of Oklahoma. We hear a lot of speeches in this place. As Members who are elected, it gets reflected on us, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because the things that really make this place operate are the people who work with us, the people who support us, the people who help guide us, the people behind the scenes who are both brilliant and committed and dedicated to the founding principles of this country.

We all have them working for us. Yet they are rarely recognized. So whether our accomplishments are big or small, those accomplishments come through the work, efforts, and labors of those who join with us as we come here to try to make a difference. So I first wanted to say there are a lot of people I need to say thank you to; from our Parliamentarian Elizabeth to all of the staff who work in the Senate, to the people who work at GAO, wonderful people, CRS, the IGs, legislative counsel -- they have written thousands, I mean literally thousands of amendments for me. They probably are going to have some real mixed feelings about my departure.

Then I have personal staff, one of whom -- all tremendous -- but one of whom I found to be a phenomenal, brilliant person. His name is Roland Foster. There is not anything he has ever forgotten. You can ask him anything. He will find it. He knows it. So I mention him. I have hundreds of others whom I could equally speak about, from my former chief of staff Mike Schwartz, who passed away from Lou Gehrig's disease, to those in my office and staff who each knows what a difference they make -- they did -- the cloakroom staff and the help we get from Laura Dove and David Schiappa and Mr. Duncan on our side -- same on the opposite side. We are only able to function because of all of the people who enable us to do that.

So with those thank yous, I actually wanted to move to a different topic. The topic is believing in our country. I tell people wherever I go: We do not have one problem we cannot solve. There is nothing too big for us. They are all solvable.

To prove that is my chairman, Tom Carper, on homeland security. He has been a phenomenal chairman. He is not in my party. We do not agree on everything, but the one thing we agreed on was that we were going to work together to solve problems. We have. We did not solve them all, but I would suggest if we look at what has come through this place, even in this dysfunctional place at this time, we will see more coming out under his leadership than any other pieces of legislation. Why is that? It is because the focus was not about him, it was not about me, it was about solving the problems of our country. To those of you through the years whom I have offended, I truly apologize. I think none of that was intended because I actually see things differently. You see, I believe our Founders were absolutely brilliant, far smarter than we are. I believe the enumerated powers meant something. They were meant to protect us against what history says always happens to a Republic. They have all died. They have all died.

So the question is, What will happen with us? Can we cheat history? Can we do something better than was done in the past? I honestly believe we can, but I do not believe we can if we continue to ignore the wisdom of our founding documents. So when I have offended, I believe it has been on the basis of my belief in article I, section 8. I think we can stuff that genie back into the bottle.

E pluribus unum. "Out of many, one."

But you do not have one unless you have guaranteed the liberty of the many. When we ignore what the Constitution gave us as a guideline, to protect the individual liberties, to limit the size and scope of the Federal Government so the benefits of freedom and liberty can be expressed all across this land, that is when we get back to solving our problems.

I think about my father -- he had a fifth grade education -- a great believer in our country. He would not recognize it today. The loss of freedom we have imposed by the arrogance of an all too powerful Federal Government, ignoring the wisdom and writing of our Founders that said: Above all, we must protect the liberty of the individual and recognize that liberty is given as a God given right.

So my criticism isn't directed personally, it is because I truly believe that freedom gains us more than anything we can plan here. I know not everybody agrees with me, but the one thing I do know is that our Founders agreed with me.

They had studied this process before. They know what happens when you dominate from a central government. This didn't mean intentions are bad; the intentions are great. The motivations of people in this body are wonderful, but the perspective on how we do it and what the long term consequences are of how we do it really do matter.

We see ourselves today with a President whom we need to be supporting and praying for, with an economy that is not doing what it could be doing, and we need to be asking the question, Why? Is there a fundamental reason? And there is.

We are too much involved in the decisionmaking in the economy in this country that inhibits the flow of capital to the best return, which inhibits the growth of wealth, which leaves us at a standard of living the same as what we had in 1988. That is where we are, yet it doesn't have to be that way.

I am going to read some words we have all heard before, but they are worth rereading.

WE hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights... All of us.

...that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness

I look at legislation and say how does that have an impact on those two things, and too often it has a negative impact.

...That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it.

I don't know where we are on that continuum, but I know we are not where we were intended to be in the vision of our Founders, and we are suffering, no matter where you are in the country, as a consequence.

We established the Constitution to try to protect those rights and to delineate those rights. We put in the limitation of the government and outlined the rights of each individual citizen upon which the government shall not infringe. Yet what comes out of this body and this Congress every day, to my chagrin, infringes those guaranteed rights.

Every Member of the Senate takes the same oath and this is where I differ with a lot of colleagues. Let me read the oath, because I think it is part of the problem.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Your State isn't mentioned one time in that oath. Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties. It is not to provide benefits for your State. That is where we differ. That is where my conflict with my colleagues has come. It is nice to be able to do things for your State, but that isn't our charge. Our charge is to protect the future of our country by upholding the Constitution and ensuring the liberty that is guaranteed there is protected and preserved.

The magic number in the Senate is not 60, the number of Senators needed to end debate, and it is not 51, a majority.

The most important number in the Senate is one -- one Senator. That is how it was set up. That is how our Founders designed it, and with that comes tremendous amounts of responsibility, because the Senate has a set of rules or at least that gives each individual Member the power needed to advance, change, or stop legislation.

That is a tool that has to be mentored and refined and wise in its application. Most of the bills that pass the Senate never receive a vote. We all know that. It is a vast majority of the bills. They are approved by unanimous consent. It only takes a single Senator to withhold consent to stop most legislation.

There are many other rules and procedures a Member can use. They are often referred to as arcane, but that is only because they are rarely used. They are not arcane. They were designed to protect liberty, to secure liberty, to make sure that we don't all follow history and fail.

Every Senator has the power to introduce legislation and, until recently, offer amendments.

No single Senator should be allowed to decide what the rights of another Senator should be. That is tyranny. It has nothing to do with the history and classics of the Senate.

To exercise the rights we have been entrusted with, we must respect the rights of others. That is the true power of our Constitution. That is also the true power of the Senate. It is what binds our Nation together, and it is what is needed to make the Senate work properly again.

The Senate was designed uniquely to force compromise, not to force gridlock -- to force compromise. One Senator had the power to stop everything for the first 100 years, but it didn't because compromise was the goal.

Our Founders understood there were many differences between the States -- in size, geography, economy, and opinions. They united the States as one country based upon the premise that the many are more powerful than the one. As Senators, we have to follow this example. I have not always done that; I admit that freely to you. I should have. As Senators, we must follow the example, stand for our principles, but working to find those areas of agreement where compromise can be found to unite and move our country forward. My colleague Senator Carper has my admiration because he has worked tirelessly the past 2 years to try to accomplish that.

Not all of the powers of the Senators are exercised on the Senate floor. Each Member of the Senate has a unique role to participate and practice oversight, to hold the government accountable, and that is part of our duties, except most often that is the part of our duties that is most ignored.

To know how to reach a destination, you must first know where you are, and without oversight -- effective, vigorous oversight -- you will never solve anything. You cannot write a bill to fix an agency unless you have an understanding of the problem, and you can only know this by conducting oversight, asking the tough questions, holding the bureaucrats accountable, find out what works and what doesn't, and know what has already been done.

Effective oversight is an effective tool to expose government overreach and wasteful spending, but it also markedly exposes where we lose our liberty and our essential freedoms.

I have had some fun through the years, taken some criticism for the waste vote -- and it is opinion, I agree. Everybody who has seen the waste book has a great defense of why it is there. But the real question is will we become efficient at how we spend the money of the American people? This is a big enterprise. There is no other enterprise anywhere close to it in size in the world. It is not manageable unless we all try to agree to manage it and have the knowledge of it.

I think there ought to be 535 voice votes every year, and then we ought to have the debate about where we are not spending money wisely and have the information at our fingertips so we make great decisions because, quite frankly, we don't make great decisions because we don't have the knowledge. Then what knowledge we do have we transfer to a bureaucracy to make decisions about it when we should have been guiding those things.

True debates about national priorities would come about if we did effective oversight. It is the Senate, once hailed as the world's greatest deliberative body, where these differences should be argued. Our differences should be resolved through civil discourse so they are not settled in the street.

Just as the Constitution provides for majority rule and our democracy while protecting the rights of the individual, the Senate must return to the principles to bring trust of the electorate, and it can.

Our Founders believed that protecting the minority views and minority rights in the Senate was essential to having a bicameral legislature that would give us balance and not move too quickly against the very fundamental principles upon which this country was based -- and not out of guessing, but out of thorough knowledge of what had happened in the past. We have to be very careful to guard both minority rights and the rule of law.

There is no one who works in the Senate who is insignificant, whether it is the people who serve us when we have lunch, to the highest of the high. They all deserve our ear. Each of us has value.

I would end with one final comment. The greatest power I have not used as a Senator, which I would encourage you to use in the future, is the power of convening.

You have tremendous power to pull people together because of your position.

To convene the opposite opinions -- Chuck Schumer has been great at that for me. When we have a difference, he wants to get together, convene, and see how we work.

That power is the power that causes us to compromise, to come together, to reach consensus. So my encouragement to you is to rethink the utilization of the power of convening. People will come to you if you ask them to come.

Again, I end by saying a great thank you to my family for their sacrifice, a great thank you to the wonderful staff I have, and a thank you to each of you for the privilege of having been able to work for a better country for us all.

I yield the floor.

(Applause.)


MORE:

Jim Antle, writing about Tom Coburn in This Week, reminds that, notwithstanding his cordial relationships with Pres. Obama and some Senate Democrats, "Coburn was a serious right-winger":

In 2000, Coburn endorsed Alan Keyes for president. He made anti-abortion statements stronger than anything Todd Akin ever uttered publicly. As senator he has reminded his colleagues, and the occasional Supreme Court nominee, that Congress' powers are limited to Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

Antle remembers that Coburn's 2004 campaign for Senate was as a conservative insurgent against the establishment's candidate:

The Republican leadership and GOP appropriators lined up to give money to his primary opponent, Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

Some of the biggest names in Oklahoma Republican politics were behind Humphreys, as either endorsers or financial backers: Don Nickles, James Inhofe, J.C. Watts, Tom Cole. Coburn won the primary by 36 points.

One of the highlights of my trip to the 2004 Republican National Convention was a lengthy conversation with Tim Carney, then a reporter for Evans and Novak, about Tom Coburn's prospects. Despite Coburn's big primary win, Brad Carson, the Democrat who succeeded him in the 2nd Congressional District, was thought to have a serious shot at winning the Senate seat. Ten years later, Carney offered his reflection on Coburn's record in the Washington Examiner:

Considering how often Coburn found himself opposing his House GOP elders, especially those on the Appropriations Committee, they were surely happy when he went back to Muskogee to deliver more babies after the 2000 election.

But the heartburn returned for the Republican establishment a few years later when Coburn jumped into the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Don Nickles.

Among the handful of GOP candidates, the two clear frontrunners were Coburn and Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. If you wanted to see what Beltway Republicans really thought of Coburn, you could have checked out Humphreys' campaign coffers.

Coburn was arguably the stronger general election candidate, having represented the most Democratic part of the state, which was also the home base of Democratic candidate Brad Carson. But that didn't seem to matter to the men who had served with Coburn or who feared they might have to.

Carney provides a long list of Oklahoma and Washington establishment figures, including Don Nickles and Jim Inhofe, and lobbying groups who jumped in behind Humphreys. Coburn beat Humphreys 61%-25%. Carney sees Coburn's victory as a harbinger of later insurgent defeats of establishment candidates:

This pattern may sound familiar, because it has played out a half dozen times since - in 2010 and 2012, we saw the GOP leadership and K Street lobbyists line up behind Charlie Crist in Florida, Trey Grayson in Kentucky, and David Dewhurst in Texas, while the grassroots backed Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

You could say Coburn was Tea Party before the Tea Party.

And Coburn justified most of the fears of the appropriators and their business clients. Coburn, together with Jim DeMint, waged a long war to ban earmarks, parading out absurd examples such as Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere and Iowa's indoor rainforest. Coburn would embarrass his colleagues by offering amendments to strip out earmarks and use the money for sympathetic causes, such as Hurricane Katrina relief.

STILL MORE:

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal details "How Coburn Made a Difference" (link leads to Bing, from which you can link to the story without a subscription):

What Mr. Coburn does leave is a more informed electorate and a better Republican Party--two groups that benefited enormously from his focus on first principles: adhering to the Constitution, limiting federal government, and protecting individual liberties. In his three terms in the House and 10 years in the Senate, he became most known for forcing Congress (in particular his own caucus) to reconcile its actions against those principles. His long-term efforts to decode the federal government--voluminous reports on waste and fraud, demands for more transparency--were likewise aimed at giving voters the tools they need to hold members true to those principles.

The real key to Mr. Coburn's success was a skill too little valued in Washington today: hard work. He was an accountant and then an obstetrician before coming to D.C., and never lost that belief that he needed to earn his paycheck. He was in the office every morning by 7:30. He'd read every word of every report his staff gave him--and send it back with typos circled. He read every bill and objected if he wasn't given the time to do so before a vote. He'd dive into monstrous sections of the federal government--the budget, veteran affairs, disability payments, the tax code--and not re-emerge until he knew it front to back. He was a policy innovator, in particular on health care.

Many was the time this reporter would stumble across some government outrage, and call Mr. Coburn's office for his take--only to discover he'd written a bill to fix the problem a year earlier. That knowledge was power; he was a formidable opponent because he knew more than the appropriators, the negotiators, the bills' authors. An all-time favorite line came from one of his staffers who, in the middle of a Coburn budget fight with Congress, wryly commented: "I don't know why they bother. Fighting with Coburn over the budget is like waging a land war in Asia. You can't win."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 23, 2014 10:33 PM.

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