Conference Call with Senator Tom Coburn

Senator Tom Coburn spoke with a number of bloggers via a noon conference call to update us on the status of his efforts to reduce pork barrel spending.

Coburn was quite informative and genial, speaking as he was to a friendly audience. He is clearly passionate about the issue of earmarks and has basically staked his whole career–including his maverick run for the Senate by pledging not to bring money home to his constituents–on reforming the system.

He reports that Secretary Rumsfeld says Congress is “crippling” the military with earmarks in defense appropriations, forcing spending hundreds of millions on programs DoD doesn’t want or spending it very inefficiently.

Coburn reiterated his intention to challenge EVERY EARMARK on the Senate floor. Wants complete breakdown of all earmarks for both houses and made explicit in the text, not the report, of the bill. He notes that “Many earmarks are added in conference that nobody knows about.”

He wants bloggers to help get the word out and to serve as eyes and ears on local projects. If Congress is forced to post information on-line days ahead of votes, then bloggers and their readers can pour through legislation looking for pork. It would be especially helpful if bloggers can get quotes from local folks saying a project that benefits them is wasteful. Coburn believes that would give him “very powerful” ammunition to use on the floor.

In response to Dale Franks, he said he has “No problem with” giving the president impoundment authority but does not think it’s a winnable fight right now.

Responding to a question from Jon Henke on support from the Senate leadership, Coburn said that there’s “a culture that’s here” and that, unfortunately, the GOP leadership is part of that culture. Senators are worried about re-election and “Oversight is hard work and no glamour comes with it.” That’s one reason he supports term limits. He believes there is $80 Billion dollars in savings to be had just in Medicare and Medicaid fraud alone if Congress would do its job.

He notes that, “Some earmarks are good earmarks.” Asked by me to elaborate, he said that anything that “is controlled by one person” or that is added on after the committee has done its work is almost by definition a bad earmark. In a follow-up, I asked about, for example, the time-honored tradition of taking a major defense project and dividing it up among a dozen of states and a couple hundred House districts just to make sure that there is a guaranteed support base. He says that is “absolutely” a problem. He says its not just spending money on non-priorities but spending money inefficiently on priority items that needs to stop.

Coburn may well be Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. He proposes a radical restructing of the way Washington has worked for decades and that goes against the institutional nature of the Congress. Why there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake and 100 Senators representing 50 states and 435 Congressmen representing 435 tiny districts deciding how to spend it, there’s going to be a lot of deal making. That’s just a fact.

Still, I’m glad to see someone come forward and fight this. Even if he manages to stop only the most aggregious earmarks, it would be a great start. The Blogosphere will surely be some help in getting the word out but, ultimately, it comes down to how Members vote and whether their constitutents return them to office when they engage in these practices.

Update: Other participants are weighing in with their thoughts: McQ, John Hawkins

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He's a widower and father of two young daughters. He earned his PhD from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.