A Doctor in the Senate: Interview with Sen. Tom Coburn
By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media
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.
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?
SENATOR COBURN: If, in fact, we have a mandate that we have only so much money to spend, you have two ways of doing it: You can let a market force allocate that, or you can have bureaucrats allocate it. So you can have this complex government organization known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board that starts deciding what they’re going to pay for things—well, when they start paying less for things than what they cost, people quit doing them. The other thing is, if they decide that you’re 70, and they’re not going to invest this money in you—so Medicare isn’t going to pay for your stints in your heart even though you’re 70 years old, because they don’t have the money to do it. That’s what’s coming under a government-controlled health care plan. We can do better than that. Every other area in our economy does better than that. The free enterprise system, with the appropriate checks and balances, can cause us to wring a lot of money out of health care, improve the quality, and decrease the overall costs of health care in this country.
SENATOR COBURN: The problem isn’t with the American public, the problem is with the elite political class that responds by furthering their own careers rather than fixing the country. Remember the other thing: Media likes to focus on a fight, rather than on the problem, and so we have coverage that’s extraordinary and flamboyant because it’s interesting when two people are fighting, or two ideas are fighting, but they never focus on what the problem is and why we need to solve it now rather than wait.
ARONOFF: You have laid out a four-point plan to get the country back on track. Why don’t you basically run that down, because I think there are some very good points in there. Let me take the first one: Reform the tax code. This is interesting—I know through your Simpson-Bowles work you’ve talked about it, lowering the tax rates across the board, getting rid of a lot of loopholes. Everyone seems to agree with that, yet at the same time, Obama and the Democrats seem determined to see the tax rates go up at the end of the year. That seems in direct conflict with the notion of tax reform, lowering the rates and so on. How do those two concepts ever mesh?
SENATOR COBURN: We have a problem with confidence in our country. We have $2.6 trillion in cash sitting in business bank accounts right now. That’s about $1.6 trillion more than we normally have, and the reason it’s there is, there’s no confidence and no certainty about the economy, or what the tax rates are going to be.
SENATOR COBURN: So if you were to lower all the rates for everybody, and limit the deductions to charitable contributions, limited, and mortgage deductions, limited, you could have rates of 8%, 12%, and 24%. That would give a jump start to our economy like you’ve never seen. You’d see that $1.6 trillion run off those books and be invested in our economy.
ARONOFF: You’re also on the Senate Judiciary Committee. [In June], President Obama invoked Executive Privilege over Operation Fast and Furious…What is your view of this Executive Privilege? Do you think this is justifiable?
SENATOR COBURN: What it looks to be is completely political. First of all, the statements that have been made thus far is that White House had nothing to do with this, and, probably, that’s true—they didn’t have any knowledge of it. But the fact that Executive Privilege was invoked means that they’re trying to delay the onset of the transparency that’s required to resolve this until after the election. So I think it’s a purely political move, I think there’s significant smoke there, and there’s probably some wrongdoing that they didn’t want to see exposed before the election. Now it’ll go to court, and will not be resolved until after the election, so what they did was put up a wall…so nobody in America can actually know what’s going on. I mean, you can’t have the Justice Department say one thing, then ten months later say, “No, that’s absolutely false. We were in error when we told you we had no knowledge of it.” They did have knowledge of it, and, probably, the problem wasn’t in that it was a wrongheaded idea and somebody made a mistake—the problems usually occur in this when people start trying to make excuses or cover up what they’ve done. That’s the problem. The wiretap information that has been available to members of Congress and the various committees actually proves that the Justice Department did know what was going on, that they issued the wiretaps and were involved in it.
ARONOFF: When we see this position by the White House on the DREAM [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors] Act, where they decided that they’re going to allow these people from 16-30 to stay in the country and, in essence, give them at least a two-year pass, a work pass—this is after President Obama had said, on numerous occasions, that he didn’t have the power to do that…We’ve also seen this with DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]—he seems to just make decisions that are, really, part of the legislative process. What do you see with this overreach of executive power?
SENATOR COBURN: I think the glue that holds our country together is the rule of law. If you undermine the rule of law, you do two things. One is, people lose confidence in you, because it’s obvious, especially—he has no power to issue the executive order that he did. It can’t carry the force of law, and when it comes to court, he’ll lose that, and he knows it. So he’s undermining the rule of law, and saying, “What the Congress says doesn’t matter, I’m chief executive, I don’t care what the law is, I’m going to do this.” But, more importantly, when you’ve undermined the rule of law, what you do is, you cause other people to not have confidence in the rule of law, and then they say, “Well, if the rule of law isn’t important to the head law enforcement individual in this country”—i.e., the Attorney General—“and it’s not important to the President, because he just changes it whenever he wants, I feel free, then, to not follow the rule of law myself!” That breeds anarchy. So the number one thing any President has to do is to abide by the rule of law, and create confidence in the rule of law, so the rest of us will follow it. That’s the one thing I think has given America its exceptionalism—here, more than anywhere else, maybe with the exception of England: You can count on the fact that you may not win in court, but you can have a day in court, and that laws have meaning and are enforced. We’re as close to getting perfect justice as we can—it’s not perfect, but we’re as close as any society’s ever come to doing that—and when you have the leader of our country, and his chief law enforcement officer, undermine that core principle, which was outlined by John Locke, what happens is, you undermine the foundations of our country.
SENATOR COBURN: There’s no question about it. There’s no question about it: Those [national security] leaks came from the White House. They’re quoted in press reports of high level White House people, so there’s no question about it. What you don’t know is what the motivation is. You can make an assumption that it’s all politically motivated, based on the President, but you can’t know that. But the fact is, doing that has done grave danger to our country, grave danger in terms of our ability to work with other people, put multiple lives at risk because people have violated the very principle under which you can have significant capabilities to defend our country.
SENATOR COBURN: I think that our problem is that the profession of journalism has been impeached, and has been undermined, and I think there are very few true journalists out there today who can actually present a story and you don’t know which way they’re thinking. They have the capability to do that, but they’ve lost the professionalism to do it, and editors have totally failed, in terms of how they edit stories to take out bias in the presentation. Talk radio is very similar to that, as well, and so are the talking heads on the cable news channels—all of them. I think we’ve lost a lot. I think Americans are a whole lot smarter than that. They don’t need to be told how to form opinions. They have the capability of doing that. If you present them with the facts, they’ll come to a conclusion.
Dear Fellow Media Watchdogs:
One of the most blatant examples of the media taking sides in this year’s presidential election has to be the coverage of Mitt Romney’s recent trip to England, Israel and Poland. The trip was reported to be one major gaffe and stumble after another. But the reality is that Romney actually had a very successful trip, marked by a warm reception from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an endorsement from former Polish president, Lech Walesa, one of the great historic figures in the toppling of the communist Soviet empire. In England, it is conceded by many conservatives that Romney made an unforced error in his handling of a simple question about the British handling of the Olympic preparations. But even that doesn’t withstand the scrutiny.
The news cycle for several days was consumed with Mitt Romney’s “gaffe.” In an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams after arriving in London shortly before the Olympics. Romney was asked if the Brits looked ready for the Olympics. Romney replied, “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, stories about the private security firm not having enough people. The supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials. That, obviously, is not something which is encouraging.”
For that comment, he was the subject of ridicule for days, and it became the media’s characterization of his whole trip. The day NBC recorded the interview, and showed most of it on its evening news program, they didn’t even include that sound bite, except on their website where they posted the full interview, indicating how insignificant they thought it was. But the British press jumped all over it. The absurdity is that many news organizations reported, in much tougher terms, the many security and transportation problems that the Brits had not effectively dealt with leading up to the Olympics. CBS News called Romney’s comments a “blunder,” but CBS News had just the day before gone into much greater detail about these very problems.
Piers Morgan, the host of CNN’s Piers Morgan Live said that Romney is “absolutely right…Mitt Romney was only saying exactly what’s been happening.”
But there was virtually no reporting on an Obama administration order to Federal immigration officers to refrain from deporting violent criminals, including one who had attacked one of their agents, if they claimed to be a “Dreamer” under Obama’s recent executive order. Or the fact that the IRS may have delivered more than $5 billion in refund checks to identity thieves who filed fraudulent tax returns for 2011. No gaffes there. There are no Obama scandals in the eyes of our corrupt national media.•
For Accuracy in Media