In the Colosseum

The Island Hopper

Tom Coburn battles careerist politicians.

By From the December 2013 issue

The Senate isn’t known for its candor. Politicians tend to respond to even the most penetrating question with a warmed-over string of mawkish clichés cooked up by a pack of slimy consultants sitting in a K Street conference room and carefully steered through a gauntlet of sunlight-deprived focus groups. Ask your typical Republican senator his opinion on, say, allegations of improper NSA surveillance of our allies, and his answer will sound something like this:

We need to make sure that the NSA can do its job to prevent every terrorist attack, while also respecting the privacy of every solitary American. I’ve talked to my constituents back home and they’re sick and tired of these special interests corrupting our politics. They know that this great country was founded on freedom and that freedom isn’t free. Also, Ronald Reagan.

Ask Senator Tom Coburn the same question, as I recently did, and you get something slightly less restrained:

That’s crap, okay? That was the French monitoring their own phone calls. They’re giving it to us because we help protect them.…Look, I’m a pretty much libertarian. I just want to do it in a way so that I can still be a libertarian 20 years from now and not be bombed out of the sky or have 10 other tragedies happen because we’re so stupid that we let emotion and lack of judgment guide us to make decisions that says, oh yeah, I’m protecting your rights all the way while your airplane gets blown up.

This is not how people in Washington are supposed to talk. Yet Coburn, the gray-haired congressional veteran, has been talking this way for years. He describes his staff as “commandos ready to infiltrate and sabotage the dark heart of Washington’s spending culture,” has said he supported the death penalty for abortionists, and during a recent public appearance called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid an “asshole.” Asked about this last violation of D.C. Decorum, Coburn offered perhaps the rarest form of candor on Capitol Hill: an admission that he was wrong.

It makes Coburn seem like a reporter’s dream come true. He eyes you gruffly while you ask a question, as though deliberating whether to answer or order you to vacate his saloon. Happily, he always decides not just to answer, but to do so with almost unnecessary detail, like he’s determined to singlehandedly compensate for the verbal elusiveness of every one of his colleagues. His answers sound so much like rants, irritated with everyday politics, veering without warning between topics, interspersed with the dialect of his native Oklahoma—“we cain’t spend more,” “he duhn’t know”—that it’s easy to miss how wonky they are, drawing on his 19 years in office.

During one of these locomotive answers, after declaring that a certain public official didn’t know what he was talking about, Coburn abruptly paused and said, “Now you can’t print any of what I’m about to tell you.” He then spent about two minutes off the record, determined that his point should be fully made even if I was the only one who benefited. Halfway through, I snuck a glance at an aide sitting at the other end of the table, waiting for him to pull out a stun gun or one of those Men in Black zapping devices that erases short-term memory. Instead he was entirely at ease. Apparently this was par for the course.

Coburn was first elected to the House as a member of the heady Class of 1994 and a signatory to the Contract of America. He quickly grew disillusioned with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ethics violations and emphasis on personality politics. As Coburn describes it in his book The Debt Bomb, the last straw came when he confronted Gingrich on giving up on principle and demoralizing conservative voters. Gingrich’s blithe response: “Clinton has already motivated our base.” After the GOP lost House seats in the 1998 election, Coburn helped rally votes against re-electing the iconic speaker, and Gingrich ultimately resigned from Congress.

But Gingrich was just the first in a long line of Republican leaders and luminaries whom Coburn would irritate. In 1999, when Speaker Dennis Hastert decided the House should pass legislation that increased spending before it tackled bigger priorities, Coburn filed so many amendments to an agriculture bill that the gears of state creaked to a halt. When Coburn ran for Senate five years later, Hastert pronounced two weeks before Election Day that his opponent, Democrat Brad Carson, would “probably” win. Coburn beat him by 12 points.

He arrived in the Senate determined to break up its porky, profligate culture and unafraid to talk about it in the most martial terms. He calls his fight to cut spending his “island-hopping campaign”; just as American naval forces in the Pacific opted to clear out individual islands instead of invading Japan, Coburn wants to storm one beachhead of government waste at a time, chalking up small victories and pushing ever-deeper toward the statist mainland. “It’s guerrilla warfare,” one of his aides tells me with a demure smile.

The targets of these strikes have always been bipartisan. In 1998, a staffer for Republican Rep. Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, left Coburn a voicemail offering $15 million for special projects in Oklahoma in exchange for a “yes” vote. Coburn promptly sent the tape to ABC News and accused Shuster of bribery. He has little love for the institutional GOP—he’s never attended a Republican convention and has blasted “moderate Republicans” and “phony K Street conservatives”—and his time in the Senate, during the big-spending Bush years, often pitted him against his own party.

One of the first atolls that Coburn carpet-bombed was earmark policy. This meant squaring off with one of the most powerful—and most porky—Republicans on Capitol Hill: Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Coburn introduced an amendment that would have diverted money to the reconstruction of New Orleans from several wasteful projects, including the Alaska “Bridge to Nowhere.” Stevens raged on the Senate floor. He first promised that he would be removed from the chamber on a stretcher if the bill wasn’t killed, and then, more modestly, that he would resign. The Senate ultimately approved the pork 82-15, but the Bridge to Nowhere became a symbol of government corruption. In 2011, the Senate finally voted to ban earmarks altogether.

Though Coburn tried to torch the Bridge to Nowhere, he somehow avoided burning bridges with Stevens. The audacious freshman and the senior statesman had a collegial relationship, exchanging friendly phone calls and boxes of cigars, all the way up until Stevens lost re-election in 2008.  

That’s a paradox, or perhaps a tension, at the core of Tom Coburn. On one hand he’s an ever-present bee in the bonnet of his colleagues. On the other hand, this is the Senate, the upper chamber, with all the cordiality and back-slapping and “My dear friend the senator from Idaho”-ing that come with it. “I have great relationships across the aisle with a lot of people,” Coburn tells me, and it isn’t an idle boast. He cobbled together an ambitious plan to shore up Medicare with Sen. Joe Lieberman. He served on the bipartisan supercommittee and voted for its resulting deficit-reduction blueprint. He’s had good working relationships with Sen. Dick Durbin and other Democrats.

One of those Democrats was a freshman Illinois senator named Barack Obama, with whom Coburn teamed up on several occasions to fight government waste, most notably targeting FEMA no-bid contracts after Hurricane Katrina. When I ask Coburn about his current relationship with the president, he becomes uncharacteristically tight-lipped. “We still speak. I still send him notes occasionally,” he says. “Real leadership is bringing people together, not separating them. I think he could have done that and I think he’s chosen not to.”

On the second most powerful Democrat in the country, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Coburn is more incautious. “The Founders created the Senate to force consensus. Harry’s trying to run the Senate to force non-consensus. His way or the highway.” For most well-heeled members of the Washington commentariat, Republicans are obstructing Congress; for Coburn, it’s Reid who’s blocking meaningful debate. He compares the upper chamber to a teapot where “Harry never lets anything happen that lets the steam out.”

And yet, as Thomas Friedman might put it, the heat in the kettle isn’t stopping Coburn from storming the islands. While he’s plenty upset about big-ticket issues like Obamacare—“I don’t believe under the Constitution that you’re guaranteed a right to health care. I can’t find it in there”—he likes to work down at the micro level, searching for excess in the narrow grooves of government. His staff, who seem to sleep only on weekends and federal holidays, are forever releasing new reports specifying exactly where the waste is and how to cut it out. One of their best, called “Department of Everything,” took on the Republican sacred cow of defense spending and uncovered $68 billion in waste, including the production of specialized Pentagon beef jerky and a smartphone app that advises you when to take coffee breaks. When I ask him what his next targets are, Coburn lists duplicative programs and Social Security disability insurance, which is rife with fraud. “We could save $15 billion a year by fixing disability,” he says.

The larger problems faced by Social Security and Medicare pose the ultimate challenge to Senate culture. How do you get spendthrift, popularity-obsessed politicians to tweak programs that send checks to tens of millions of Americans, many of them senior citizens and thus constant targets of slavish political pandering? “The unfortunate thing is the political cowards outnumber the statesmen 3-to-1, 4-to-1,” Coburn says with a slight shrug. There’s a matter-of-fact note in there, even something approaching resignation. Coburn is optimistic that the Senate will eventually tackle entitlements and other fiscal problems. But fraud, abuse, corruption, debt…these things will always be with us

Congressional front offices, which are essentially dentist waiting rooms for the senatorial set, are often adorned with mementoes. But Coburn’s is noticeably austere. The only color comes from two football helmets, one from the University of Tulsa and the other from OU, and a framed picture of Will Rogers with his famous quote: “We will never have true civilization until we have learned to respect the rights of others.” It’s an environment that sums up its senator’s politics rather well: swept free of the usual Washington pomp, focused on preserving individual liberty, and pining to be back home. In Mark Leibovich’s This Town, Coburn is at his most excitable when he’s neutralizing water moccasins in his pool in Oklahoma. “I kill them,” he said, “by slicing their heads off with the sharp edge of a shovel.” 

Coburn promised to serve two terms, and his second expires in 2016. It’s a principled pledge, but premised on self-defeating logic: If the only senators who term-limit themselves are the ones who believe in term limits, then no senator will ever stick around long enough to enact term limits…right? I somehow articulate this in a coherent question, and Coburn dissents. “I would never violate that pledge. Never,” he says. “That’s why they trust me: I honor my promises.”

Then it’s back to decapitating the snakes. Who knows? It sounds a lot less grotesque than wrangling with career politicians.

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Matt Purple is an editor at