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How Tom Coburn Made a Difference

Tom_Coburn.jpegThe retiring senator blocked more bad ideas and lousy bills than most Americans will ever know.

Kimberly Strossel, WSJ January 1, 2015 

Members of Congress come and go, and many leave Washington no better or worse than they found it. A few make a mark, and Congress is losing one of them: Tom Coburn.

The senator doesn’t leave behind him a stack of legislation with his name, or grand bipartisan deals. He doesn’t leave stunts, public tantrums, an adoring press corps, or, for that matter, many adoring GOP colleagues. Mr. Coburn didn’t really “do” legacy. Which is why this rather humble Oklahoman will have one.

What Mr. Coburn does leave is a more informed electorate and a better Republican Party—two groups that benefited enormously from his focus on first principles: adhering to the Constitution, limiting federal government, and protecting individual liberties. In his three terms in the House and 10 years in the Senate, he became most known for forcing Congress (in particular his own caucus) to reconcile its actions against those principles. His long-term efforts to 

decode the federal government—voluminous reports on waste and fraud, demands for more transparency—were likewise aimed at giving voters the tools they need to hold members true to those principles.

The real key to Mr. Coburn’s success was a skill too little valued in Washington today: hard work. He was an accountant and then an obstetrician before coming to D.C., and never lost that belief that he needed to earn his paycheck. He was in the office every morning by 7:30. He’d read every word of every report his staff gave him—and send it back with typos circled. He read every bill and objected if he wasn’t given the time to do so before a vote. He’d dive into monstrous sections of the federal government—the budget, veteran affairs, disability payments, the tax code—and not re-emerge until he knew it front to back. He was a policy innovator, in particular on health care.

Many was the time this reporter would stumble across some government outrage, and call Mr. Coburn’s office for his take—only to discover he’d written a bill to fix the problem a year earlier. That knowledge was power; he was a formidable opponent because he knew more than the appropriators, the negotiators, the bills’ authors. An all-time favorite line came from one of his staffers who, in the middle of a Coburn budget fight with Congress, wryly commented: “I don’t know why they bother. Fighting with Coburn over the budget is like waging a land war in Asia. You can’t win.”

Another Coburn strength was his skill at practicing politics, without being political. He knew every arcane rule in the Senate and was willing to use them to force a clarifying moment. When he first arrived in Washington, some accused him of grandstanding—until they realized his interest was in shining a light on everyone but himself. The pity is that history rarely hands out awards to those who stop bad things. Tom Coburn blocked more bad ideas and lousy legislation in Congress than most Americans will ever know.

He understood power structures, and public outrage, and the long game. Despite his reputation as “antiestablishment”—cast as a precursor to today’s Ted Cruzes or Rand Pauls —he was anything but. He had an old-fashioned belief in the true power of the Senate—of convening, of finding answers—and co-wrote legislation with nearly every Democrat in office. And he was savvy. It took him a decade of floor speeches and amendments—and the phrase “Bridge to Nowhere”—to get the GOP to swear off earmarks, but he got it done. He played off Barack Obama ’s stated interest in transparency to create USAspending.gov, designed to inform the public on federal outlays.

Yet it wasn’t about his image. He wasn’t cute or coy, and he didn’t engage in fool’s errands. In a recent conversation I asked Mr. Coburn about the limits of standing on principle. “There are all kinds of tactics that the right can use, but they only work if you have the leadership, courage and vision to hold until you win,” he says. He doesn’t think the GOP is there, and it is why he opposed last year’s government shutdown.

Asked what he was most proud of, he gave a typically Coburn answer: “I try not to look back; just gives you heartburn.” What he’ll miss most are some truly personal friendships he made—he names John McCain , Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss —and a weekly Bible study class that “keeps you humble and redirects you.” He also mentions his staff, who, notably, were the first people he thanked in his farewell to Congress. That gracious spirit was one reason his staff adored him.

Mr. Coburn was elected to a second Senate term in 2010 and vowed to abide by self-imposed term limits. He’s had health concerns and is leaving early. But he has no regrets. This citizen-legislator had a full life before Congress, and he’s brimming with plans for life after Congress. If all those new, incoming Republicans senators are looking for a model—this is their guy.

Write to kim@wsj.com

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How Tom Coburn Made a Difference
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