Sen. Tom Coburn Talks Romney, Norquist, and Taxe

The senator sounds off on Mitt, Norquist, and more, and he’s not afraid to sound off. By Lloyd Grove.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

When Sen. Tom Coburn claims he’s not a careerist, the Oklahoma Republican is more credible than most Washington politicians.

Since he arrived in the House in 1995 (and served only three terms, as promised, and took a four-year hiatus before running for Senate in 2004), Coburn has become a one-man cottage industry of impolitic candor.

He’s given to trumpeting his utter revulsion for legislative sausage making, to berating his colleagues for manipulating the public while punting on the real problems facing the country, and to slapping the media for lazily rewriting his own press releases (!) without independently checking the facts.

Coburn can’t even bring himself to take a victory lap over the Senate’s passage last week of his long-proposed spending cap on out of town meetings for federal agencies—a reaction to the recent bad publicity over the General Service Administration’s profligate boondoggles. “Yeah, but they wouldn’t give us a recorded vote,” Coburn says sourly, “And that means Harry [Reid, the Senate Majority Leader] plans on taking it out when it goes to conference.”

What’s more, Coburn doesn’t bother to hide his apparent lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. “Yes,” Coburn tells me tersely when I ask if he’s happy with his party’s White House contender. Will Romney deal seriously with the looming disaster Coburn describes in his new book The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America? “He’s not gonna have any choice,” Coburn says. “But it doesn’t matter who the president is the next time,” he can’t resist adding. “They’re not gonna have any choice. If it’s Obama, he’s not gonna have any choice.”

Having exploded the Romney campaign’s main rationale for replacing Barack Obama, Coburn, 64, offers a clue to his crockery-smashing ways.

“Look,” he says, “Life is not permanent. And you should be making the effort to try to change things if you have the ability to do so. I’m not a careerist because it doesn’t exist…It doesn’t matter if you write a crappy article about me. It has no bearing on what I’m gonna do or not gonna do. I’m not paying attention to that. I’m focused on the real issues.”

An obstetrician and general practitioner before running for office, the good doctor knows too much about life’s impermanence. At 26, Coburn was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. Nine years ago, he discovered he had metastatic colon cancer. Last year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“Right now, I’m ahead of the curve on all three of them,” Coburn says, “But that doesn’t mean I will stay ahead of it.”

Around the time that Coburn was learning about his latest life-threatening illness, Congress and the White House were engaged in a typically dysfunctional debate over whether to raise the federal debt limit (a protracted dispute that resulted in a shocking downgrade of the U.S. government’s credit rating). Coburn had been serving on the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission and then, after that failed, the so-called “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group of senators attempting to negotiate a politically palatable path to fiscal responsibility.

That effort foundered as well, largely over the treacherous impasse of revenue increases, on the one hand, and structural overhauls of Medicare and Social Security, on the other.

The process had Coburn openly defying Americans for Tax Reform lobbyist Grover Norquist, whose sole mission is to stop Republican office-holders from even considering, let alone supporting, a tax increase of any kind (especially the removal of a loophole without offsetting rate reductions; but Coburn would classify that as cutting government spending, not increasing taxes).

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In his book, co-authored with his communications director John Hart, the senator spends three and a half pages deriding Norquist—the creator and enforcer of the famed anti-tax hike pledge that Coburn himself signed—as a media invention who is “seen as all-powerful while being functionally irrelevant” to the tax reform debate.

“You all have made him look tremendously more powerful than what he is,” Coburn says, noting that he now regrets swearing allegiance to Norquist’s pledge, which he did as a candidate for Senate. “I agree with him 98 percent of the time. But I disagree with him adamantly when he says that eliminating a tax expenditure [a deduction or credit that benefits a specific economic activity] is a tax hike. It’s something of a bogey man, and all our conflicts come over that….To bow to this guy because of his pledge—that’s stupid.”

(Coburn says the three House Republicans who served on the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, including current Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, were privately willing to support revenue-raising tax reform but ultimately voted against the commission’s proposals, effectively scuttling its work, because it didn’t demand long-term structural entitlement reforms. “They can take some criticism,” he says of his disobliging House colleagues.)

Coburn’s book—part call to arms and part primal scream—points out that the federal government currently borrows $41,222 every second and predicts that if the Washington politicians don’t confront the consequences, there will be financial Armageddon along with incalculable economic hardship and riots in the streets.

“Every day that we delay means the difficulty of solving these problems will be that much greater,” he says on the phone from Oklahoma, where he is on Senate recess and flew back Thursday night after “getting out of jail,” as he puts it. “It’s discouraging. And I’ll just tell you, it’s very hard to come back to Washington when we’re not working on the major problems that face our country…A lot of people don’t realize all the crap that goes on there. It has nothing to do with the country and everything to do with the political betterment of individuals…That’s why I wrote the book. I’d like for people to know what’s going on.”

Coburn—who in 2010 was reelected to his second (and, he vows, last) Senate term with more than 70 percent of the vote—is a rare Republican who opposed extending the deficit-exploding Bush tax cuts that were enacted when he was a civilian. “I would not have voted for the Bush tax cuts because they weren’t paid for,” he says. Ditto the prescription drug subsidy known as Medicare Part D.

“I voted against the extension, because it wasn’t paid for.” Never mind that Coburn at one point argued that extending the tax cuts didn’t represent an added cost, because they were already the law. “If you look at my votes for the past seven years,” he says, “not once have I voted for a tax cut without paying for it.”

If the government continues borrowing at the current pace and the national debt keeps mushrooming, Coburn figures we have five years, at most, before the world comes crashing down around our ears and the United States of America, as we know it, ceases to exist. By that time, he expects to back home in Oklahoma.

“I’ve got a whole bunch of grandkids I want to spend time with,” he says. “I love golf. Now I only get to play 10 to 12 times a year. I hope to do some medical advising. I’ll be spending time with my wife, who has been great in the face of my abandonment. We’re coming up on 44 years.”

He insists a presidential run is out of the question. “I’m not called to do that. Going to back to the cancer, you get a little more honest with yourself about what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses, what you can do and what you can’t. I’ve already put my family through enough.”