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A Doctor in the Senate: Interview with Sen. Tom Coburn (Part 1 of 2)

August 13, 2012

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) showed why he is so highly regarded by conservatives, when he went up against a panel of left-wing journalists on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and made them look ridiculous. It was the second day after Ted Cruz, the Harvard-educated lawyer of Cuban descent, had won the Texas Republican primary over the establishment favorite, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. Cruz is a Tea Party favorite, and had the open support of many high profile conservative leaders from around the country.

The MSNBC line-up included Lawrence O’Donnell, sitting in as host for Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. O’Donnell, who proudly calls himself a “socialist” and someone who lives to “the extreme left of you mere liberals,” and Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times. O’Donnell was mocking Romney, as he constantly does, and Collins chimed in that “there’s a good reason people don’t relate to the Tea Party. It’s not because its name is the Tea Party. It’s because it wants to undo all the entitlements that people like and wants to drastically reduce the size of the government, wants to get rid of veterans benefits, wants to get rid of education aid, all the stuff people actually like.”

O’Donnell replied, “I really don’t know how we explain this, veterans receiving veterans benefits standing there prominently at tea party rallies cheering on the tea party person.”

Collins said that “their minds live in an empty place, in their minds they have—they’re independent, they don’t need government and they disassociate themselves from anything that says that they are in fact dependent on government for a lot of things in their lives.” That was the point at which they introduced Sen. Coburn, a medical doctor who has delivered more than 4,000 babies, and is in his second and self-imposed final term of his Senate career. They asked him to tell a little bit about Cruz, who he had supported in the primary.

“A real person,” said Coburn. “Mild-mannered, very smart, actually gets it. You know, I was amazed with your all’s conversation. I don’t think you all get it. The Tea Party is every person in America who really is fed up with Washington and recognizes the way we got there was abandoning the core principles of our country but also abandoning the constitution. I don’t know one tea party leader anywhere that wants to eliminate Veterans benefits. I’m appalled. That’s not a plank anywhere. It’s about how do you deliver those benefits and keep your word to the very people who defended this country. There’s a big difference of viewpoint in what a Tea Party means. I think they’re the best things that happened in the country, because we’re re-engaging hundreds of thousands of people in this country who go to work every day, obey the law, pay their taxes but they’re sick and tired in terms of what they see, the waste and stupidity they see going on in Washington.”

Accuracy in Media interviewed Sen. Coburn just days before the Supreme Court announced its decision on Obamacare. This feistiness and willingness to hit back at these journalists who just don’t “get it” has been part of the senator’s appeal.

In the interview, we focused on his new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington From Bankrupting America. Coburn has led the way in calling attention to the incredible amount of waste, fraud and abuse that exists in our federal government, including the massive duplication of bureaucracies, sometimes as many as 50 or more that do virtually the same thing, and for which there is no accountability, and no metrics to measure the success or failure of the programs.

In a speech last year on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Coburn itemized some of the massive waste and duplication by the federal government:

• “Medicaid is broke. The reason it is broke is because the States are broke trying to take care of it. We mandate what they must do, and yet the States are choking on Medicaid, and we are choking on matching the amount of dollars. Under the Affordable Care Act, it is now estimated 25 million more people will go into Medicaid. So it is broke.

•  We have 82 programs to improve the quality of our teachers, run by the Federal Government across 7 different agencies. Only one of them is at the Department of Education. Why are we doing that?

•  We have 88 economic development programs in 4 agencies, for which we spend $6.8 billion, and we have another 100 economic development programs in 6 other agencies, for which we spend another $4 billion, and not one of them has ever been measured to see if it improves economic activity.

•  We have 56 programs to teach financial literacy to the American people. First of all, I question whether we ought to be teaching anybody financial literacy as a government when we run it so poorly. But if, in fact, we do, why do we have 56? And, oh, by the way, not one of them has ever been measured to see if it effectively teaches somebody financial literacy.

•  We have 47 job training programs which cost $18 billion a year, 9 different agencies, 9 different sets of bureaucracies, and all of them but three overlap with the other. That is according to the Government Accountability Office. Why? Why would we do that?

Below are excerpts from the interview I conducted with Sen. Coburn, which also covered his views on Obamacare, and the President’s use of executive privilege to shut down the investigation into his Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious. You can listen to the complete interview or read the transcript here. Editor’s Note:  The remainder of the interview excerpt will be published here next week.

SENATOR COBURN: Fifteen years ago—actually, sixteen now—the total size of our federal government was what we borrowed in the markets last year. So we had a $1.4 trillion deficit last year, and if you go back to 1995 and look at the total size of our government, it was about the same size as what we borrowed. The federal government’s now twice the size it was eleven years ago—the point being, that is markedly hurting our economic capability…The greatest risk to us, as a nation, is our debt, our unsustainable debt. Those aren’t my words—those are [Admiral] Mike Mullen’s, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He said that the biggest risk to us is not al-Qaeda, not terrorism, not China, not Russia—it’s our debt. For a military man to put it in those terms tells you that everybody in positions of power actually sees what the problem is. The question is, where’s the leadership and the courage to address the problem?

SENATOR COBURN: As a practicing physician, I can tell you that one of the reasons that health care is in trouble is because the government’s running 50% of it now. There are ways for us to fix health care. Some interesting statistics: What we know, by five separate, independent studies, is that $850 billion a year in health care dollars are wasted. That’s $1 out of every $3. That means $1 out of every $3 isn’t helping somebody get well, and isn’t keeping somebody from getting sick. So why would we continue anything towards a semblance that would continue to waste 33% of everything we spend on health care? I would put forward to you that there are two areas that aren’t functioning well at all, and they’re the two areas where no market forces work at all. Those are education, and health care. Where you see market forces applied to health care—even with a safety net—what you see is markedly lower costs for health care. 

SENATOR COBURN: Medicare’s going to change, and only an untruthful politician would deny that. The question is, how do we change it to still deliver good quality? The reason it’s going to change is, in five years we won’t be able to borrow enough money to keep Medicare running the way it is. Just a little fact: The average couple who works in America and retires puts $110,000 of payments into the Medicare Part A trust fund. They take out, on average, $330,000 to $350,000. How long do you think that will last? 

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Copyright ©2012 Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.