The Spectacle Blog

In Tom Coburn, We’re Losing a Good One

By on 1.17.14 | 1:42PM

There are very few senators who conservatives would agree regularly fight the good fight. After this year, there will be even fewer:

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn confirmed Thursday night that he will not serve out his full Senate term and intends to step down after 2014 because of deepening health problems.

In a statement, Coburn acknowledged that he is battling a serious recurrence of cancer and said he would continue to fight for his priorities during the remainder of his time in office.

Coburn described the early attitude of his staff as that of “commandos ready to infiltrate and sabotage the dark heart of government.” Over the years, he turned his congressional office into a Capitol Hill think tank, pushing out regular reports that documented where the waste was and how to get rid of it. His annual Wastebook, which listed the most infuriating budget items, is great ammunition against liberals who put faith in bureaucratic efficiency and supposed conservatives who have grown weary of all this small-government talk. “We’ve allowed lard, excess, sloth to run in many agencies,” Coburn told me. For years, he did his best to ferret out those vices. With his retirement, it’s imperative that someone else take up this cause.

After interviewing Coburn last year, it seemed to me there were two careful balances he’d struck that made him effective. The first was that he was contemptuous of the federal bureaucracy, but also knew it very well. Most wonks who have a working knowledge of government become seduced by its supposed potential to do good. Coburn can speak the language of Ezra Klein, but deploys it to criticize government, not buttress it further. Second, he speaks harshly, occasionally irresponsibly, but still has strong relationships with many Democrats. One of his most recent initiatives, a bill that would rein in tax-deductible government settlements with corporations, found him working with Elizabeth Warren, arguably one of the most liberal members of the Senate. If enacted, the law could save taxpayers billions.

Coburn, who first came to the House of Representatives with the Republican wave of 1994, pledged to limit himself to three consecutive House terms and, later, two Senate terms. When I asked him whether he intended to honor that promise, which would have meant not running for reelection in 2016, he was firm. “Two million people can do this job better than me,” he insisted. Now that he’s leaving two years early, the question of who can do Tom Coburn’s job is one conservatives will be asking. Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Tim Scott, and Ron Johnson all have impressive small-government street cred. Senate candidates like Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Ben Sasse in Nebraska have enormous promise. In fact, it may be that now is a safer time for Coburn to retire than ever before. The Senate GOP is transitioning from a party of chair-warming, next-please establishmentarians to smart, fresh, idea-driven iconoclasts. Coburn deserves credit for pioneering this approach to public service. The Senate GOP will be worse for his departure, but at least he might leave it in good hands.

You can read my profile of Coburn from our December 2013 issue here. We wish the senator and his family the best as he battles cancer.

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