How to cut wasteful government spending: An interview with Senator Tom Coburn
By Peter and Helen Evans
Peter and Helen: Senator Coburn, your committee is called Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security. That's quite a mouthful. What is the purpose of this committee?
Senator Coburn: Subcommittees have a range of responsibilities. I'm using the committee for oversight. I'm using the Federal financial means to get as broad a sweep as I can to look at, but we do do internet security, government information security. We have the census under our committee. That's another story you'd love to hear about; the waste, abuse and fraud that goes on in the census. Plus international security; be it the Iranian problems, the Korean problems. We've had hearings on those in terms of a threat to our own international security Plus the problems with Korea's production of $100 bills. We've really broadened the discretion of the Committee. Our goal is to look at every penny the Federal government spends.
Peter: How close are you to realizing that goal?
Senator Coburn: We're not anywhere close yet, and we've had 43 hearings now.
Helen: Yours is an oversight committee, but there is no "or else" there. What happens if you make recommendations and they are not followed?
Senator Coburn: We're making it public. The problem is that there is this feeling, "it's the federal government and it's just going to waste money and nothing can be done about it." However, shame still works. Shame in combination with outrage from the American taxpayers works even better. The reason we put our website up is so the American people can begin to see how significant the problem is. It's not a problem that can't be solved, it's only a problem that can't be solved if we continue with politics as usual. Politics as usual means using the Federal government to help me get re-elected rather than, "I'm going to fulfill the oath of my office and do what is necessary to spend the money (that we have all combined together) on the things that are most important." Ultimately, our goal is to have participatory democracy, where you can see every place we spend money; except for national security issues. So if anyone wants to find out more about it, they can visit this web page.
You don't have to search all over, we're making it easy with the Accountability and Transparency Act.
Helen: What do you think our Founding Fathers would think about the current spending of federal government?
Senator Coburn: They'd be totally nauseated. They'd be nauseated because of the waste for one. Number two; they'd be nauseated by the abuse of the Constitution. The federal government has abused the Commerce Clause in cases where it's nowhere close to the federal government's responsibilities. They've created areas of dependency, not just among certain groups of people, but now cities and states. Well, that's ridiculous. Let's send the money back to the states and let the states decide what they want. That's even a hill far higher. That's the way you ultimately answer that, because the government that's closest to the people is the best government. When we're making decisions and it's based on the circular illogic of Washington DC - that continues to stay in here without any good input - the more of those problems we're going to have.
Helen: Are there certain values or principles that guide you when you look at Federal spending?
Senator Coburn: Well, of course. If you're going to be a steward, that requires that you don't turn a blind eye to waste, inefficiency, duplication. The best corollary is, most people don't borrow for discretion, they borrow for necessity. Most families make decisions based on what they think is coming in. We've lost it up here [in Washington, DC] because we don't worry about transferring our standard of living today by ultimately giving our children and grandchildren a lower standard of living. We don't worry about stealing their future.
Peter: The publicly-accessible database you're proposing provokes two attitudes about it. One is that people will see the waste and demand less spending which I think is your intent.
Senator Coburn: They'll see the waste and throw the people out who aren't paying attention to the spending.
Peter: Well, the ultimate result is to reduce the waste rather than replace the people.
Senator Coburn: Right.
Peter: The other attitude is that people will see how much money the government is spending on their behalf and for them - especially those who are in a dependant situation - and feel great appreciation for the largesse of the Federal government and hope that they will spend more on them.
Senator Coburn: There are legitimate roles for the Federal government. One is defense. If you read the Constitution, it says "provide for the defense." But when it refers to the general welfare, what's the verb it uses? "Promote." It's not "provide," it's "promote." The point is to contrast that. There are some things the Federal government does fairly well. It's not all bad. The point is that there are a lot of things they can do a whole lot better. Why should we raise taxes? why should we do anything until we get the waste out and the duplication out? If we did that tomorrow we'd save a quarter of a TRILLION dollars a year. A quarter of a trillion just for waste, fraud, abuse and duplication.
Helen: We see two types of spending. One is that natural impulse to spend other people's money. We see it in our own private lives and we're sure most of the people who will read this will see it. A small instance is going to a buffet and trying everything not knowing if we like it - afterall it's someone else's money - that fallacy that it's doesn't cost us anything.
Senator Coburn: Well, you know, not everyone does that. It depends on how you were raised. If you were raised to be a good steward with everything, you go to a buffet and take what you need and eat what you take. Maybe you'll try a small portion but you'll not waste a lot. What we're doing through the government is creating further dependency, when instead what we need is the modeling of behavior, that says, "We don't have to spend it all. We don't have to borrow for non-essentials."
Helen: So we're trying to change some basic bad habits. We were talking on the way over here about how we don't only show our character when a major decision confronts us; our character is revealed in the small everyday things we do. When we develop self-control we'll begin to demand it of the elected stewards of our tax money.
Senator Coburn: The dangerous thing here is that there is nobody to keep us from borrowing money. I mean, how many people voted against raising the debt limit? The best thing I know is to not raise the debt limit and to make us cut spending; rather than just borrow more money. My subcommittee is a way to invigorate the American people, show them what's actually going on, and show them a way to change things; whether it's by their vote, a letter or by going to the office of their representative in Congress. By truly becoming informed about how their Congressman or Senator is voting will change things; we don't usually know how they vote. There might be the stale, paper view of how we voted, but that doesn't really explain the voting.
That's the great thing about the bloggers. The main stream press - until Abramoff - didn't care about earmarks. They played the game. They weren't fulfilling the Founder's vision of holding people accountable by putting out the truth. They're complicit with the truth. They're part of the inside gang. Only when it pays through conflict or scandal will they work on it. We've lost a lot because we've lost that valuable tool of shame and exposure of members of Congress because the press hasn't been doing their job.
Helen: So when the American people see the waste and fraud exposed on your website, will it really help to write letters?
Senator Coburn: I think it helps some. Look, the typical Washington member of Congress - their number one goal is to stay here - so they've got their ear to the ground. If they see everything moving against them on a certain issue - especially on spending habits - they'll change. If they don't see a trend, if they don't see a push, they won't change. If that push really does develop, though, then they will throw him out. So, yeah, it really does make a difference. It's kind of like you can get a 50lb bag of sand by actually putting one grain in there at a time. So each grain of sand is important.
Helen: Just recently we saw the push against the nomination of Harriett Meiers for Supreme Court Justice. The push made the difference and the nomination was withdrawn.
Senator Coburn: Yes, letters and phone calls and going to Town Hall meetings and asking your representatives tough questions. They do work. Our job is not supposed to be easy. Our job is supposed to be making tough choices about priorities for our country that secure the future. Our job isn't supposed to be to make decisions that let us be here longer.
Peter: Do you think the federal government that started out fairly lean and mean and focused on a few narrow objects and which has gradually grown is just the accumulation of fallen human nature over the course of many generations that have institutionalized this kind of bad behavior, or it is something that was inevitable from the start of the constitution?
Senator Coburn: Well it is said that Alexander Tyler, or at least it's attributed to him that nations as democracies don't last over 200 years. They fall because they go through this cycle of bondage to complacency. People become free and have great faith; then they go through great material success then become complacent and dependant and they're back to bondage again. We're seeing our republic go through that. The only thing that will change that is strong leadership that asks the American people if they want to go back to bondage. Do we want to create a culture of dependant Americans with everyone dependant and no one providing?
When we take the roles of the Church, communities and individuals helping their neighbor and put that responsibility in the government's hands, are we better off or worse off? I would propose that we're less well off. I say that for a couple of reasons; one, you distance yourself from making the sacrifice to help someone else. That sacrifice improves you as well as someone else. However, if you use the government as the conduit by saying, "I've paid my taxes and the government should do it," then we have less character as a nation and less character as individuals.
Helen: Let's get personal here. You're still a practicing doctor as well as a United States Senator. Why do you do it?
Senator Coburn: Because it puts me in a position of communication with people outside of being a Senator. It allows me to see the real world as it is, not just the world colored through political lenses. It allows me to see real problems that real people have that are impacting their lives. That's better than some staff memo on what the 'issue' is. What we need is more connectiveness between ourselves and the representatives. Our representatives are one of us, not one of the elite in Washington. It's humbling.
Helen: Do you get paid for your services as a physician?
Senator Coburn: No, it's against the ethical rules.
Helen: Don't they even allow you to get paid enough for your malpractice insurance?
Senator Coburn: That's not allowed. I practice totally for free. I had a great big practice with lots of people; I've wound that down to my older patients who I see on Mondays or Saturdays. I'll deliver about 20 to 40 babies this year.
With that Senator Coburn had to run to another meeting.
Peter and Helen Evans and a husband and wife team - freelance writers and speakers - and teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. They are scheduled speakers at Blogging Man. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.