Tragically, Thomas Allen Coburn was also an extraordinary Member of Congress -- tragically because so few American politicians display his moral courage. Most are easily bought -- easily swayed by special interest lobbies, their own ambitions, and fear of losing.
The Washington Times tribute today to Dr Coburn, who died at 72 of cancer, is a good introduction to his accomplishments (I've changed "Mr" to "Dr" in the report because he remained a practicing physician throughout his terms in political office):
With a single amendment to a bill in 2010, he saved the government [American taxpayers] $262 billion, and counting. He made a cottage industry out of spotting ridiculous-sounding spending items, such as the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska. His investigative work brought down the largest Social Security disability fraud ring in history.
Former colleagues remarked on Dr Coburn’s religious faith, and his dedication to his priorities.
“Dr. Coburn will be remembered by many around the country for his work in Congress, but in Oklahoma, he will be remembered as a physician, a Sunday School teacher, and a mentor. He delivered over 4,000 babies and cared for thousands of moms in Muskogee,” said Sen. James Lankford, who succeeded Dr. Coburn in the Senate.
One of Dr. Coburn’s principles drilled into staff was that they shouldn’t be afraid to fight and lose. Sometimes you won the war by losing a few choice battles.
But they were also drilled to always treat legislative opponents with respect, to try to find common ground, and to outwork everyone else.
His staff figures it wrote more than 1,000 amendments to cut spending during his 10 years in the Senate.
Most of them were easily defeated or, more often, never even got a vote.
One of those failures was the Bridge to Nowhere, a span that was to be built to reach Gravina Island, with a permanent population of perhaps 50. Alaska’s congressional delegation inserted an “earmark” into a bill directing $223 million in federal money to project, saying the bridge was needed to replace a less reliable ferry service.
After Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, Dr. Coburn called on Congress to cut the bridge money and use it to rebuild a bridge in Louisiana. His amendment was crushed, 82-15.
But the bridge was never built. He had made it too toxic, and several years later then-Gov. Sarah Palin canceled the project, saying the money would be used elsewhere.
Earmarks would also never recover from the bad press, and by 2011 they were eliminated with the arrival of a new GOP majority in the House.
Dr. Coburn made “shrimp on a treadmill” famous when he highlighted a federally funded science research project that involved running shrimp on a specially-built treadmill designed to test how shrimp absorbed oxygen under stress.
When a video of the shrimp surfaced, Dr. Coburn pounced, dubbing it a waste of taxpayer money.
He made a three-term pledge when he first ran for the House in 1994, and stuck to it, leaving the chamber after the 2000 election.
When he ran for the Senate he imposed a two-term pledge on himself. He would end up staying just 10 years, leaving early because of his health.
While in the capital he took pains to keep his ties to home — including continuing to deliver babies in his doctor’s practice. That sparked another of his fights against the D.C. establishment, after the Senate ethics committee ruled he was violating conflict-of-interest rules by holding an outside job.
He then stopped taking payment, saying he would do it pro bono — but the committee rejected that plan, saying the hospital he worked at was for-profit, so it was still a conflict of interest.
He ignored the committee and continued.
Many members of Congress, when they come to Washington, go through a transformation. For the first few years, when they talk about “We,” they usually mean their constituents back home. Eventually, when they say “We” they mean themselves and other members of Congress.
Dr. Coburn didn’t succumb to that.