Friday, April 03, 2020

OCPA: Coburn set example for others


Coburn set example for others
By Jonathan Small

Can a conservative remain true to his principles once in office? Yes. Tom Coburn showed it could be done. While no one can fill his shoes, they can follow the path he blazed for them. Dr. Coburn’s life and political career show what can be accomplished if one puts commitment to principle ahead of getting along with the forces of the status quo.

Few things highlight that reality better than the debate in which Coburn made “bridge to nowhere” shorthand for wasteful government spending.

In 2005, Coburn filed an amendment to kill millions in funding earmarked for a bridge that would connect an Alaska island with a population of 50 to the mainland—the famed “bridge to nowhere.” U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, reacted with open rage, saying opponents of pork were trying to “discriminate against our state.”

“I’ve been here now almost 37 years,” Stevens said. “This is the first time I have seen any attempt of any senator to treat my state in a way different from any other state.”

(By the way, Coburn didn’t discriminate. In that same debate, he offered to kill an Oklahoma earmark sought by a colleague.)

Stevens won the debate, and Coburn’s amendment was defeated 15-82. But Coburn won in the court of public opinion. Within a few years, Congress significantly restricted earmarking. Today, 15 years after that floor debate, “bridge to nowhere” is still a pejorative.

The examples of Coburn’s commitment to principle and willingness to take a stand are many.

Rather than simply talk about fiscal discipline, Coburn fought for it again and again, including in 2011 when he produced a specific plan to reduce spending by $9 trillion over 10 years and eliminate deficits.

In his medical career, Dr. Coburn delivered more than 4,000 babies and would have continued doing so for many more years had not the Senate declared it was a “conflict of interest” for a doctor to see patients while serving in the Senate. (Yes, Congress really is beyond parody.)

At the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, we were blessed to have Dr. Coburn serve on our board, where his insight and leadership were invaluable. He remained willing to defy powerful political forces until his last day. He didn’t care how politically powerful the opponent, so long as the cause he fought for was just.

Dr. Coburn’s unwavering courage and principle are among the many reasons he will be ranked among Oklahoma’s greatest leaders. Politicians come and go, and most are quickly forgotten. Tom Coburn is the rare exception. His loss is felt by all Oklahomans.

But Tom Coburn’s legacy will live on. That legacy can be seen in the countless lives he directly impacted, both as a doctor and a statesman, but also in the even larger number who remain inspired by his example.

 Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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