The Senate's Dr. No
WASHINGTON -- The
Senate, which fancies itself the world's most exclusive club,
has its Sir John Hawkins. He was the 18th-century musicologist
whom Samuel Johnson called ``a very unclubbable man.'' The very
unclubbable senator is Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, 57, a freshman Republican
whose motto could be: ``Niceness is overrated.''
the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone
simply uninterested in being popular. When Speaker Dennis Hastert
defends earmarks -- spending dictated by individual legislators
for specific projects -- by saying that a member of Congress knows
best where a stoplight ought to be placed, Coburn, in an act of
lese-majeste, responds: Members of Congress are the least
qualified to make such judgments.
Recently, when a
Republican colleague called to say ``his constituency'' would
not allow him to support Coburn on some measure, Coburn tartly
told the senator that ``there is not one mention in the oath (of
office) of your state.'' Senators are just not talked to that
way under the ponderous rituals of vanity that the Senate pretends
are mere politeness.
Coburn is an obstetrician,
not a political philosopher, so he may not realize he is acting
on the precepts Edmund Burke explained to the Bristol voters who
elected him to Parliament in 1774. Burke said: Parliament is not
an assemblage of ``ambassadors from different and hostile interests'';
its business is the national interest, not ``local purposes''
or ``local prejudices.''
Coburn came to the
nation's attention last October when he proposed taking the $223
million earmarked for Alaska's ``Bridge to Nowhere'' and using
it to repair a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Because this threat to Alaska also threatened Congress' code of
comity -- mutual respect for everyone's parochial interests --
his proposal lost by 67 votes. But rather than do the decent thing
-- apologize, tug his forelock and slink away chastened -- he
refused to stop talking about it, made it an embarrassment to
the Senate and catalyzed revulsion against spending that is both
promiscuous and parochial.
on the ability to make even majorities blush, so it is momentous
news that shame may be making a comeback, even on Capitol Hill,
as a means of social control. Embarrassment is supposed to motivate
improved education in grades K through 12 under No Child Left
Behind: That law provides for identifying failing schools, the
presumption being that communities will blush, then reform. And
embarrassment is Coburn's planned cure for Congress' earmark culture.
was Coburn and John McCain's laconic description, in a letter
to colleagues, of their threat to bring the Senate to a virtual
standstill with challenges to earmarks. In 1999, while in the
House, Coburn offered 115 anti-pork amendments to an agriculture
bill -- effectively, a filibuster in a chamber that does not allow
filibusters. Collaborating with Coburn makes McCain, the Senate's
dropout from anger management school, look saccharine.
When Coburn disparaged
an earmark for Seattle -- $500,000 for a sculpture garden -- Sen.
Patty Murray, D-Wash., was scandalized: ``We are not going to
watch the senator pick out one project and make it into a whipping
boy.'' She invoked the code of comity: ``I hope we do not go down
the road deciding we know better than home state senators about
the merits of the projects they bring to us.'' And she warned
of Armageddon: ``I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding
for individual projects, your project may be next.'' But Coburn,
who does not do earmarks, thinks Armageddon sounds like fun.
to Congress with the 73 House Republican freshmen of 1994. A fervent
believer in term limits, he said he would leave after three terms,
and did. He says he will serve at most one more Senate
term. Of the 535 House and Senate seats, he says, ``There's 200,000
-- 300,000 -- people can do these jobs.'' How many? ``Millions,''
``I'm not liked very
well,'' he says serenely, ``but I'm like the gopher that's going
to keep on digging until someone spears me or traps me. I'm going
to keep on digging the tunnel under spending.'' Because, he says,
large deficits reverse the American tradition of making sacrifices
for the benefit of rising generations: ``I'm an American long
before I'm a Republican, and I'm a granddad before I'm either
one of them.''
``If I don't get
re-elected? Great. The Republic will live on.'' Meanwhile, his
mission is the soul of simplicity: ``stopping bad things.'' For
five more years -- 11 at the most -- Coburn will be the Senate's
2006, Washington Post Writers Group