Tom Coburn: Lady Gaga of Fiscal Conservatives

If a crisis over the national debt is averted, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn may be the unlikely hero.

If a crisis over the national debt is averted, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn may be the unlikely hero.

NYT: “A Rock-Solid Conservative Who’s Willing to Bend

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was a Tea Partier long before the movement even had a name, the family physician who came to Washington to hammer on Democrats and Republicans alike. His years of bill blocking earned him the nickname Dr. No.

Now that the debt limit negotiations between the White House and Republican lawmakers have collapsed, however, Mr. Coburn suddenly seems more like Dr. Probably. Months after he abruptly exited the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators in search of a solution to the nation’s increasing deficits, Mr. Coburn reappeared last week, saying he supported the group’s path.

With that, he advocated revenue raising as a way to break the stalemate over the budget deficit, embroiling him in a verbal war with Grover Norquist, the activist responsible for the antitax pledge taken by so many Congressional Republicans. Mr. Coburn said Mr. Norquist “represents the silliness of our political situation today.”

And so Mr. Coburn, a Republican and one of the longest-standing deficit hawks on Capitol Hill, finds himself on a divergent path from the Tea Party newcomers whose spirit and politics he shares but whose means he is at odds with. It is a divide that underscores just how intractable the spending debate has become.

But please don’t call him a moderate. “I have a 100 percent conservative rating,” Mr. Coburn, 63, said in an interview in his Senate office. “I’ve offered more ways to cut the government than anybody in the last 30 years in Congress. I know who I am and I know what I believe.”

His conservative views were underscored Friday night when he issued a statement praising John A. Boehner, the House speaker, for holding out for more spending cuts. “Raising the debt limit without addressing the cause of our debt — out-of-control spending, especially in entitlements — will be as damaging as a default,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Coburn presented his own plan to cut $9 trillion from the federal government over the next decade — far more than others have proposed — in a manner that would radically reduce government services but also produce $1 trillion in new tax revenues.

President Obama invoked Mr. Coburn in his weekly radio and Internet address on Saturday, saying: “Earlier this week, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn, announced his support for a balanced, bipartisan plan that shows promise. And then a funny thing happened. He received a round of applause — from a group of Republican and Democratic senators.”

Mr. Coburn is known for objections that delay votes on bills for days, infuriating even his fellow Republicans. Yet he almost always strikes a deal eventually, as was the case recently with his plan to end ethanol subsidies. “I’m contrarian,” he said. “I’m not much of a partisan. I go after Republicans as much as Democrats.”

Mr. Coburn said that the 87 freshmen Republican House members are “the most wonderful thing to happen to our country in a long time,” and that they “are a fantastic addition to the debate in this country.” But he also talked about balancing the passion for ideas with the need to get on board with things you dislike in part, even sometimes in large part. “The No. 1 thing people should do in Congress is stay true to their heart,” Mr. Coburn said. “But you have to recognize that we’re in a situation that’s dire for our country. If you put your name on something that will move the ball forward, you’re going to get hit.”


“Tom Coburn is very, very conservative,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “He is a true believer, but he is one who can see the other side, which is not the case with what is going on in the House right now.”

Mr. Coburn, who served on the president’s fiscal commission and then the Gang of Six, walked out of the group’s talks this spring over his request for $130 billion more in Medicare cuts than others had proposed. His exit devastated the other members, particularly the Republicans who needed his backing.

When he saw the group’s presentation last week, he felt that it was no panacea for ending the impasse over raising the federal debt limit, but was the right start. “My idea with the Gang of Six was to try and get something moving,” Mr. Coburn said. “Is it my ideal? Absolutely not. It is a compromise? Yes. Will it go a long way toward helping us get off the dead center? Yes. If I had my pleasure and I was king, we would lower revenues. But I’m not king. So that’s where I am.”

All emphases above added.

Coburn is way more socially conservative than I am and probably even more hard core on fiscal policy. But he’s smart, fairminded, and willing to adjust to the landscape around him. He’s also got his priorities in the right order: country, political principle, party, and re-election.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James says:

    Federal Bondage…

  2. ThomasD says:

    It would appear Coburn’s first priority is saving Washington. That tends to happen to those who spend decades living there.

    Far too many in Washington will view any tax increases as justification for delaying or denying spending cuts.

    Time to pull that band-aid.

  3. DEEBEE says:

    Always makes me wary when NYT praises a very conservative REPUB. Only because he still wants to play ball. All Coburn has done is go for a 8 to cut to rev bill. Even he can only promise no addition to the debt by the end of 10 years. So then why do we need the money, because in Coburn’s fantasy the tightening is in the out years , where we will have a surplus and pay the debt sown. ROTFLMAO

  4. Fiona says:

    While I find most of Coburn’s views, especially on social issues, objectionable, he appears to be one of the very few sensible adults on his side of the aisle. The Republicans’ blind insistence on no new revenues of any kind, whether they come from an end to subsidies and loopholes or an increase in tax rates for the top two percent, will not solve the deficit problem. Even their Patron Saint Ronald Reagan understood that compromise was necessary and approved tax increases not only as president but also as governor of California. That they claim to represent his legacy is ludicrous.

  5. Coburn also provides a useful service by making it easy to identify the band wagon phonies who only started caring about federal spending on January 20, 2009.

  6. I do not agree with Coburn on a number of issues, but he is non-crazy, which is a sadly rare thing in the GOP caucus these days. He at least understands that governing requires compromise.

    I do, however, take serious issue with the following:

    “Raising the debt limit without addressing the cause of our debt — out-of-control spending, especially in entitlements — will be as damaging as a default,” he said.

    That is manifestly, and empirically, untrue.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    That is manifestly, and empirically, untrue.

    Well of course it is…it is so obvious that it is an important objective for many conservatives to get rid of the New Deal/Great Society programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid…rather than simply trying to fix them to make sure they remain solvent, we hear about hundreds of trillions of dollars in obligations and how they are all unsustainable and since they’re going to go bust anyway, why not turn them into block grants or let people invest their own money in the markets…in other words, get rid of them all…

  8. acb says:

    The 600+page plan by Coburn is available on his site, I recommend everyone should go read at least parts of it. I was amazed at the wasteful programs I had never even heard of. With so many specific proposals, there are items that reasonable people can agree with, but all Americans should read his plan.

  9. Sharon says:

    At the end of the article you talked about reelection but Dr. Tom was just reelected overwhelming by Oklahomans for six more years. He stated from the minute he announced in 2004 that he would only serve two terms so there is no reelection and frankly he wouldn’t care if there was. He firmly believes he was sent to the Senate from Oklahoma to do what is best for All Americans not just one group. That’s why the grassroots supported him in 2004 against the establishment candidate and still do today.

  10. Nichevo says:

    @An Interested Party:

    You and the other one are handwaving. I say it is manifestly and empirically true (and I provide just as much proof as you did). What cannot go on…won’t.

    It may please the sensibilities of conservatives, but as I think it was Kissinger who said, It has the added advantage of being true.

    Let’s be philosophical: if these statements were not made by people you identify as your enemies, how would you decide if they WERE true? IOW a key to truth is falsifiability: if you believe this bottomless spending can go on and on, what would you admit as evidence that you were wrong?

  11. An Interested Party says:

    @Nichevo: I wrote that certain people, obviously like you, are the ones who want to dismantle the New Deal/Great Society programs, and of course they will say things like what you wrote to justify what they want to do…it really doesn’t matter who makes these statements, the fact is they are untrue…government programs can be modified but needn’t be eliminated simply to please the ideological desires of the few…

  12. Barry says:

    James – BS. Let the Bush tax cuts expire, trim down our wars to a manageable amount, get the country out of it’s slo-mo depression, and the deficit problem goes away. He’s just one more GOP Senator who was happy to go along with the Bush II frauds, and now wants to use the damage he’s caused to do more damage.