The Senate's Dr. No
The Senate, which fancies itself the world's most exclusive club, has its Sir John Hawkins. He was the 18th-century musicologist whom Samuel Johnson called "a very unclubbable man." The very unclubbable senator is Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, 57, a freshman Republican whose motto could be: "Niceness is overrated."
Coburn is the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert defends earmarks -- spending dictated by individual legislators for specific projects -- by saying that a member of Congress knows best where a stoplight ought to be placed, Coburn, in an act of lese-majeste, responds: Members of Congress are the least qualified to make such judgments.
Recently, when a Republican colleague called to say "his constituency" would not allow him to support Coburn on some measure, Coburn tartly told the senator that "there is not one mention in the oath [of office] of your state." Senators are just not talked to that way under the ponderous rituals of vanity that the Senate pretends are mere politeness.
Coburn is an obstetrician, not a political philosopher, so he may not realize he is acting on the precepts Edmund Burke explained to
the Bristol voters who elected him to Parliament in 1774. Burke said: Parliament is not
an assemblage of "ambassadors from different and hostile interests"; its business is the national interest, not "local purposes" or "local prejudices."
Coburn came to the nation's attention last October when he proposed taking the $223 million earmarked for Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" and using it to repair a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Because this threat to Alaska also threatened Congress's code of comity -- mutual respect for everyone's parochial interests -- his proposal lost by 67 votes. But rather than do the decent thing -- apologize, tug his forelock and slink away chastened -- he refused to stop talking about it, made it an embarrassment to the Senate and catalyzed revulsion against spending that is both promiscuous and parochial.
Civilization depends on the ability to make even majorities blush, so it is momentous news that shame may be making a comeback, even on Capitol Hill, as a means of social control. Embarrassment is supposed to motivate improved education in kindergarten through 12th grade under the No Child Left Behind Act: That law provides for identifying failing schools, the presumption being that communities will blush, then reform. And embarrassment is Coburn's planned cure for Congress's earmark culture.
"Quite time-consuming" was Coburn and John McCain's laconic description, in a letter to colleagues, of their threat to bring the Senate to a virtual standstill with challenges to earmarks. In 1999, while in the House, Coburn offered 115 anti-pork amendments to an agriculture bill -- in effect a filibuster in a chamber that does not allow filibusters. Collaborating with Coburn makes McCain, the Senate's dropout from anger management school, look saccharine.
When Coburn disparaged an earmark for Seattle -- $500,000 for a sculpture garden -- Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was scandalized: "We are not going to watch the senator pick out one project and make it into a whipping boy." She invoked the code of comity: "I hope we do not go down the road deciding we know better than home state senators about the merits of the projects they bring to us." And she warned of Armageddon: "I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next." But Coburn, who does not do earmarks, thinks Armageddon sounds like fun.
He was among the 73 Republican freshmen elected to the House in 1994. A fervent believer in term limits, he said he would leave after three terms, and did. He says he will serve at most one more Senate term. Of the 535 House and Senate seats, he says, "There's 200,000 -- 300,000 -- people can do these jobs." How many? "Millions," he revises.
"I'm not liked very well," he says serenely, "but I'm like the gopher that's going to keep on digging until someone spears me or traps me. I'm going to keep on digging the tunnel under spending." Because, he says, large deficits reverse the American tradition of making sacrifices for the benefit of rising generations: "I'm an American long before I'm a Republican, and I'm a granddad before I'm either one of them."
"If I don't get reelected? Great. The Republic will live on." Meanwhile, his mission is the soul of simplicity: "stopping bad things." For five more years -- 11 at the most -- Coburn will be the Senate's stoplight.