Oklahoma Politics: December 2014 Archives

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.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Oklahoma Politics category from December 2014.

Oklahoma Politics: October 2014 is the previous archive.

Oklahoma Politics: January 2015 is the next archive.

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