This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
TOM COBURN DOESN'T CARE about the midterm elections. Sure, he's a senator. Sure, he's a Republican. And sure, that means his party lost control of both houses of Congress last fall and will be out of power until at least 2009. But what difference does that make to Coburn?
"I don't think it matters," he said on a warm day in December, sitting in his office on the first floor of the Russell Senate building as the annual session came to a close. "It will be my first time in the minority party, but I've been in the minority the whole time I've been here."
For Coburn, it's a minority of one. Since his arrival in Washington, D.C., two years ago, no other senator has paved a more solitary path, butting heads with nearly every member of his own party and most of the opposition. In fact, as the Republican majority has run aground on fiscal issues over the past few years—racking up unprecedented deficits and a soaring national debt while the Democrats mostly kept out of the way—Coburn has often seemed like an opposition party unto himself. In April, for example, he tackled nineteen highly questionable expenses that his colleagues had slipped into the budget at the last minute—money that no branch of government had requested, which would directly benefit Senate campaign supporters. In September, he teamed up with Barack Obama to expose federal waste by putting the national budget on a public Web site—a prospect so alarming to some senators that two of them tried to kill it anonymously. And in December, as his Republican colleagues began cleaning out their offices to make room for the new Democratic leadership, Coburn fired a parting shot: Using legislative procedures, he blocked the GOP from finishing its annual business and pushed many of the most important budgetary decisions for incoming Democrats to make in the New Year.
But Coburn makes no apology for challenging his own party. "The American people want change," he said with a shrug. "I think they're wise to want change. The Republicans didn't do what they said they were going to do. They deserve the wrath of the voters."
Needless to say, none of this has exactly endeared Coburn to his fellow Republicans. When I asked John McCain, one of Coburn's few supporters in the Senate, how the GOP has received Coburn, he laughed. "I call him Miss Congeniality," he said. "A lot of people think he's a straight-arrow, humorless guy." Other Republicans were even less charitable. As a senior staffer in the Senate Republican leadership put it, "You know he's nuts, right?"
But for many of Coburn's colleagues, what is most surprising is not that he has become a thorn in the party's side; it's the issue with which he has made his mark. Back in 2004, when Coburn was first running for Senate, fiscal prudence wasn't supposed to be his issue. In fact, the last thing anybody expected him to become was a voice of restraint in a body of excess. If anything, Coburn was the one known for his excesses, for making pronouncements so outrageous, so far from the mainstream, that at times he seemed like a cartoon of the fanatical right—declaring his own Senate race "the battle of good versus evil," calling for "the death penalty for abortionists," and suggesting that the country was under attack by a secret gay conspiracy that had "infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country." Back in 2004, Tom Coburn was the last man anybody expected to rise above politics and try to lead us back to common sense.
But he might be the only one left who can.
COBURN'S OFFICE in Washington, D.C., has the feel of a boxer's corner, everyone huddled together in anticipation of a fight. There is a spirit of intense camaraderie inside—every time I stepped through the door, I was met with a sea of smiles and a battery of questions about my day, my weekend, my family, and my overall level of contentedness—while at the same time, there's also an almost toxic hostility to everyone still outside the door. One afternoon a staffer returning from his first trip to the Senate chamber walked into the office, sat down, and confessed to being somewhat starstruck by the experience, adding quickly, "I mean, I hate all those guys, but it was neat being down there." Another time, I was sitting with Coburn when his secretary stepped in to announce that a certain Republican congressman had requested a meeting. Coburn became instantly stiff.
"Tell him I'll be happy to talk to him, but it isn't changing," the senator said. "It is a no. It is not going anywhere. It is no."
"You want me to tell him you'll call him?" the secretary asked.
"I'd be happy to call him," Coburn snapped, "but it's not changing."
This kind of exchange turned out to be an almost daily occurrence for Coburn—somebody calling to butter him up and back him down from some battle, which only irritated Coburn more. The dynamic had begun almost the day he arrived in the Senate, in January 2005. While fellow newcomers like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama observed the customary "freshman silence," Coburn's first major move as a senator was to pick a fight with one of his party's most venerated leaders, Ted Stevens of Alaska, a forty-year veteran of Congress who also happened to be the Senate's president pro tempore.
The fight was over pork. As the 2006 transportation budget passed through the Senate process, Coburn noticed something odd: $200 million to pay for a bridge in Stevens's home state—a bridge almost as long as the Golden Gate and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting an island of fifty people to the coast. In the Senate, these kinds of giveaways are not unusual; members, and especially those in a position of influence, are frequently given millions of dollars for personal spending projects back home, items that bypass the normal review process and are quietly ushered in by their peers (whose own projects get the same deal). But to Coburn, who hadn't spent forty years in the Senate and didn't have any of his own special projects and didn't particularly care about keeping pacts with his new colleagues, $200 million seemed like a lot to spend on a bridge for fifty people. So he tried to take the earmark out. And that's when Tom Coburn discovered what his life in the Senate would be like.
Almost as soon as Coburn proposed to eliminate the bridge, Ted Stevens came tearing down to the floor of the Senate with his face red and his fists clenched, bellowing that he would not be treated with such disrespect, that the rest of the Senate would have to rise up and protect his project or he, Ted Stevens, would pack up his bags and quit the Senate and never come back. By the end of the day, eighty-two senators had voted with Stevens. Voted to spend $200 million on a bridge to nowhere, while Tom Coburn could find only fourteen members to agree that the money might be better spent somewhere else—like, say, rebuilding New Orleans.
That's what Tom Coburn wants you to know. Not about the bridge; about the bigger thing. He wants you to know how it works in Washington, how the machine keeps itself running, and the favors get traded, and the deals get struck, and the bridges to nowhere are going up every day. He wants you to know that the United States Congress simply cannot stop itself—that both parties are in on the fix, backing each other and looking the other way, and that in the spirit of bipartisan waste, they manage to blow $500 billion more than they collect in taxes every single year. He wants you to see where that money is going: the 10,000 personal projects and earmarks that senators and congressmen are sneaking into the federal budget every year—like the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative in Michigan. And the Sparta Teapot Museum in North Carolina. And the Appalachian Fruit Laboratory in West Virginia. All paid for with your tax dollars.
That's what Tom Coburn wants you to know. That the members of the United States Congress will spend your money just because they can. That they'll do it even when they can't. That every year, they borrow the extra $500 billion from China, raising their own credit limit each time they reach it and then raising it again the next year, for a total of $9 trillion in debt so far. That's right, nine trillion dollars, a figure so enormous that even if the fifty richest people on earth—including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Michael Dell, along with the richest men in Saudi Arabia and Russia and Hong Kong—got together and sold everything they owned, right down to the last buttons on their last embroidered shirts, and then they donated all their money to the U.S. national debt, they still couldn't afford to pay a single year of interest at 10 percent. That's how much $9 trillion is, and that's what Tom Coburn wants you to know: that in Washington, there isn't really a party in charge, or a principle, or a leader. What's in charge is the money. Because at the end of the day, when it comes down to a choice between borrowing $200 million from China to build a bridge to nowhere and taking a stand against government waste, four out of five politicians will blow it on the bridge.
So now there's all this hullabaloo about the Democrats taking over—Tom Coburn is supposed to care? He's supposed to get excited now that the peanut butter is on top and the jelly is on the bottom instead of the other way around? This is a revolution? It's a revolution that Ted Stevens has been pushed aside as chairman of the defense-appropriations subcommittee and that in his place the Democrats have installed…Daniel Inouye of Hawaii? A man who inserted $900 million of his own personal projects into the budget last year—and who happens to be one of Ted Stevens's best friends in the Senate? It's a revolution that the Democrats have cleaned out the subcommittee behind the Bridge to Nowhere and replaced the chairman with…Patty Murray of Washington? A woman who personally led a campaign for the bridge and who threatened revenge against any Democrat who opposed it? It's a revolution that Thad Cochran has been deposed as the most powerful budgetary overlord in the Senate and is being replaced with…Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia? A man who has single-handedly converted his state into a federally funded monument to himself, with no less than thirty projects named in his own honor, including the Robert C. Byrd Expressway and the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer and the two Robert C. Byrd federal buildings and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism—not to mention the actual statue of Robert C. Byrd that stands in the rotunda of the state capitol?
Robert C. Byrd is going to clean up the government? This is a revolution?
Coburn smiled at the suggestion. "We'll see how the Democrats vote on the first big earmark boondoggle that comes up," he said. "I'm gonna try to reserve judgment."
WHEN THE SENATE is in session, Coburn lives in a dorm-style apartment with eight other members of Congress, including Democratic representatives Mike Doyle and Bart Stupak. Every Tuesday evening, they gather to hold prayer night, talking about the temptations and pressures of public life, but otherwise they mostly work late and socialize rarely, bumping into one another occasionally in the TV room to watch a game. This is as much of Washington's social orbit as the 58-year-old Coburn cares to indulge, and every Thursday, as soon as he can break away from his work on Capitol Hill, he jumps in a cab to the airport, flies to Tulsa, and drives an hour south to the small town of Muskogee, where he joins his wife, Carolyn, for a few hours of sleep before waking at 5 a.m. to go to work at his medical practice.
A family-practice doctor for twenty-three years, Coburn continues to see about fifteen patients a week, and on any given Saturday, while his Senate colleagues are teeing off or jockeying for position on the weekend talk shows, Coburn can be found knee-deep in paperwork at his office or patrolling the maternity ward at his local hospital, delivering babies. For his labor, he is paid exactly nothing. Senate rules allow members to maintain almost any business they choose back home—a hardware store, an investment firm, in a few cases even recording contracts—but prohibit doctors and lawyers from continuing to practice. This has posed the single greatest challenge of Coburn's political life, and not only for economic reasons. As a firm believer in the ideal of the citizen legislator—a member who goes to Washington for a fixed number of years and keeps his full-time job at home—Coburn has tried and failed to convince the ethics committee (some of whom, perhaps coincidentally, have clashed with him over fiscal issues) that his medical practice should be allowed. Having lost that battle, Coburn keeps his office open anyway and simply doesn't charge his patients. By his own estimate, he loses about $40,000 a year practicing medicine for free.
To say that Coburn could live without the pressure of juggling two high-stakes jobs in two distant cities would be an understatement. He hates it, and it doesn't take long to get the sense from him that if voters had not elected him to the Senate in 2004, he would have been a happier man. But to Coburn, that's exactly what makes the job worth doing. "In any election," he is fond of saying, "you should vote for the person who will give up the most if they win."
In the era of Jack Abramoff and the K Street Project, when members of Congress are routinely flown around the globe on luxury vacations at the expense of corporate lobbyists, mugging for the cameras at every stop and then rushing to see themselves on the airplane TVs, it can be difficult to keep a straight face when the talk turns to "sacrifice" and "public service." Yet to spend time with Coburn as he comes alive in Oklahoma, tending to his patients and his forty-acre orchard, and then to travel back to Washington with him, to see the look of defeat as he leaves his family, his medical practice, and the old Yanmar tractor that he maintains himself, it is impossible to mistake Coburn for an eager politician.
One Monday morning last fall, as he made the drive to the Tulsa airport with his suit jacket crumpled on the backseat and his briefcase overstuffed with research papers and faxes, he reflected on the privilege of being a United States senator. "Every Monday I wish I didn't have to go back," he said. "But you know, I have a job to do, and I'm going to do it. My dad was born in a mud hut on the plains of eastern Colorado, and he always encouraged us to work. When I was a little boy, he bought the rights to an invention that held a piece of glass onto a metal block so you could cut and grind the piece of glass into a lens for eyeglasses. When I was 5 or 6, he would have us out in the garage, putting the little centers with three points on the back of the block, pounding them in, while he would be making the blocks on the lathe. We'd build about twenty of these machines, and then Dad would go on the road and not come home until they were sold."
Coburn reached for a bottle of Dasani water and took a sip.
"My first paying job was sorting bolts and nuts for my dad," he continued. "He'd buy old machines, and we'd salvage the nuts and bolts off them. We'd have to sort them by size. If we could sort through a whole five-gallon bucket, we got a quarter. For a whole five-gallon bucket. After that, I learned how to turn a lathe in a mill. By the time I was 14 or 15, I could do a lot of stuff on a lathe. Then in high school, I sold clothes. Sold shoes. I've always worked. I saved my money and bought an old '28 Chevy…"
Coburn trailed off, looking out the window at the plains where he'd grown up. The midday glare made the landscape white.
"I never gave any thought to politics until I was grown. None. I had my practice, I had my family, my career, and I read the paper, but my only political thoughts were that I had gotten disgusted with the Democrat who was my representative. He wanted to nationalize health care. His positions had nothing in common with our district. And I just said to Carolyn, 'I'm going to get into this race.' She said, 'You're nuts.' I said, 'Well, somebody's got to try.' And that's how I ended up as a Republican. I'm not sure I'm as much of a Republican as I am independent-minded, but if I've got to pick between two parties, I'm a Republican."
As Coburn launched his campaign for the House in 1994, nearly everyone around him watched in silence. They knew him well enough to realize that he couldn't be talked out of something once he'd made up his mind, but to most of them—even his kids—it seemed like a fool's errand. The incumbent, Mike Synar, was a sixteen-year veteran of the House of Representatives, well-placed in the Democratic majority, and all but certain to win reelection by a landslide. No Republican from the district had been elected since 1921, and only one had been elected to a second term.
Then there was Coburn: He had no experience at any level of government, no background in political theory or government affairs or anything remotely related to government, and as some of his closer friends pointed out, he was possessed of what you might generously call a stubborn streak, which is not exactly the material from which political success is usually hewn. To run, he would have to put his medical practice, his life, and to some extent, his family on hold for…what? Certain defeat?
But as he hit the campaign trail, something surprising began to happen—not only to Coburn but also to the district he wanted to represent.
In retrospect, the 1994 Republican Revolution can sometimes seem like a foregone conclusion, but at the time it was far from ordained: a grassroots movement that didn't so much reach into small towns like Coburn's as it emerged from them. Running as a Regular Guy with No Experience, Coburn tapped into a pervasive frustration with Congress, which had been plagued by a series of Democratic scandals. Painting Synar as a career politician with no roots in Oklahoma, promising to keep his own medical practice open after his election and return home every weekend for work, and making no secret of his deeply held conservative social values, Coburn changed the terms of the debate. By the time voters went to the polls in 1994, Coburn had been so successful in his campaign against Mike Synar that Synar wasn't even on the ballot. Democrats had chosen a more conservative candidate in the Democratic primary, whom Coburn still defeated.
Entering the House in 1994, Coburn was proud to be a member of the Republican Revolution and was a true believer in its Contract with America, which called for congressional-term limits, balanced budgets, and tougher campaign-finance laws. But unlike many of his new friends in the Class of '94, Coburn would never drift from those ideals, imposing his own term limit of six years in office, insisting on unpopular budget cuts even when his Republican colleagues begged him not to, inserting anti-abortion measures into unrelated bills, and gradually growing disillusioned with his colleagues who didn't do the same, most notably Speaker Gingrich, who Coburn believed was learning the art of compromise too well and becoming, like a scene from Animal Farm, the very thing he had been elected to overthrow; or as Coburn said in his 2003 memoir, Breach of Trust, "like a whipped dog who still barked, yet cowered, in Clinton's presence."
Not long after Coburn left the House in 2000, I called him at home in Oklahoma. I had never spoken with him before but had been intrigued by his awkward place in Congress, struggling to hold on to something that had been real for him but illusory to many of his colleagues. When I tracked him down in Muskogee, the taste of Congress was still bitter on his tongue.
"The waste I saw every day was incredible," he said. "Most of our politicians don't have high self-esteem, so they have to have people doing things for them all the time, telling them how great they are. The system is broken, and the only way it gets fixed is by throwing the vast majority of the incumbents out. One of the greatest things I saw in six years was Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin—this just shows you how callous and brassed these guys are—introducing a bill on the floor naming institutions that already had names, naming them after themselves! I would tell you, in Arlen Specter's case he's done a great disservice to the nation. Also Robert Byrd—he knows exactly how to rape the U.S. Treasury and mortgage the future. It's sad. There are two kinds of members, with two different lifestyles. There's the guys that come home every weekend, fly in Monday or Tuesday morning for the week, and live a real life in their district the rest of the time. And then there's the guys that live in Washington. I spent one weekend there in six years, and I don't ever want to spend another one."
Now, as Coburn headed back to the Tulsa airport once again, leaving behind his real life—his family, his practice, his home—for the ornate bluster of Washington, he seemed, if not depressed, annoyed.
"Believe me," he said, "when I left the House I had no intention of running for anything again. I didn't want to run for the Senate. And I wouldn't have run if I didn't think this was what I'm supposed to be doing. I had to pray on it for a long time. I prayed hard, and I just felt like I was supposed to do this."
LAST SPRING, I joined Coburn in Washington for a few weeks to observe the latest front in his war on pork: the emergency supplemental budget. Designed to provide assistance to crisis victims—think September 11 or Hurricane Katrina—the supplemental had entered the Senate with $92 billion of emergency funding. But as the bill passed through committee, the Senate GOP had shifted into pork-barrel overdrive, cramming an astonishing $14 billion of additional projects into the bill, including many items that had nothing to do with September 11, Katrina, or any other crisis, items that the House of Representatives had never seen or approved, items that even the president had threatened to veto unless the Senate could contain itself. But the Senate would do no such thing.
For Coburn, this presented yet another opportunity to bring his case to the public. As his colleagues went to work piling expenses and amendments onto the emergency supplemental, Coburn wrote an amendment of his own—but instead of adding expenses, Coburn's took them away. He identified nineteen specific projects for removal and submitted a nineteen-part amendment, with each part designed to remove one earmark. Then he invoked an obscure rule that would force his colleagues to debate each of the nineteen parts separately—a strategy he dubbed "the Clay Pigeon."
This allowed Coburn to divide and conquer. Rather than tackling all the pork at once and encouraging his opponents to lock arms in mutual defense, he was isolating each item for individual scrutiny.
"It's okay if I lose the debate," he said on the day of the vote. "My goal is to make members go down on the floor and defend these projects. If we can make the American public take notice of what's going on here, the lack of good work that Congress is doing and how their money is being spent, people will become so appalled that they'll want change. They will hold members accountable."
Coburn had chosen his nineteen targets carefully, for maximum effect. Any one of them was enough to make the average citizen laugh out loud; taken together, in a continuous stream on the Senate floor, they promised to be obscene: One section identified a $500 million cash bonus that Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi had slipped into the emergency budget for his supporters at Northrop Grumman, a giveaway that even the Pentagon had identified as "inappropriate" and wasteful. Another section exposed a $700 million care package from Senator Thad Cochran, also of Mississippi, to help CSX relocate a railroad in…you guessed it: Mississippi. And a third section uncovered a $15 million giveaway that Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama had stuffed into the emergency bill to help his friends in the Alabama seafood industry pay for their "promotional materials."
As all that pork made its way onto the floor, Coburn was visibly excited. "These guys want to pay Northrop Grumman $500 million?" he said, sitting forward in his office chair and rubbing his hands together. "Baloney! Northrop Grumman is a billion-billion-billion-billion-dollar company that makes billions in profit every year! The railroad, I think, is a good idea—for Mississippi. If I were the governor of Mississippi, I'd be doing that, too. I applaud them for wanting to do it. But it isn't an emergency, number one. And it's absolutely not something that the rest of the country ought to be paying for! So it's not about not doing it. It's about whether it's our responsibility or theirs. I don't think the American taxpayers should be paying for it. The very fact that these senators think we can do that, and that the American people will not be upset, is troubling to me."
Coburn was clearly preparing for a showdown on the floor that afternoon, and this was turning into his debate prep. "It's okay if I'm not popular around here," he continued, throwing his hands wide to indicate the entire city of Washington. "It's okay if I take hits. It's even okay if I'm not reelected. Because losing advances the ball in the long run. It opens the debate and the conversation. We need to be honest with the American people. And we're not. We're terrible. We're not even honest about the numbers. We put out figures like we had a $300 billion deficit last year when in fact we had a $520 billion deficit. We've been lying about it. We use the same accounting tactics as Enron. If we applied the same standards to Congress that we apply to Enron, everybody here would go to jail."
An hour later, Coburn was on the Senate floor. "At some point, it has to stop," he cried to a nearly empty chamber. "This is called an earmark. It is placed in a bill to benefit one specific area at the expense of everybody else. It has legitimate value for the state of Mississippi… And it will certainly be paid for through lost opportunities for our kids. What $700 million could do for everybody else [who suffered] in Katrina! If you assume an interest rate on our debt…this $700 million relocation will balloon to more than $4 billion. That is what your grandchildren will have to pay back for what we are proposing today."
Then Coburn yielded the floor, and one by one, Senators trickled in from their offices to vote. All the old lions staggered to the front desk, holding their thumbs up or down.
But Coburn was defeated, 48-49.
Afterward, Coburn was back in his office, visibly disgusted, but many of his staff were thrilled. A year ago, they'd lost the Bridge to Nowhere by 82-15; this time they'd come within a single vote of success. "It's an improvement," one of Coburn's principal aides said. "We're getting closer."
But the thing that nobody could understand, even in the context of politics as usual, was the fact that with the midterms looming, with the Senate hanging in the balance, the Democrats had refused to join Coburn to remove a Republican earmark. Hillary Clinton had voted against him. Teddy Kennedy had voted against him. Robert Byrd had voted against him. To waste taxpayers' money on a frivolous project for Republican donors.
"The Democrats are amazing," said one of Coburn's senior staff. "If just one more of them had changed votes, we would have won, and then they could have claimed it as a victory. But they're so in love with spending money, they'll fall on their swords to protect a Republican earmark."
Coburn looked tired. "Nobody wants to lose their own earmark," he said. "You have to go back to why people are in Congress. They're in for one of two reasons: They're dedicated to making a difference, which means they put themselves second; or they're here because they want to be in power, and they put themselves first. The first question they ask is 'How do I get reelected?' rather than 'What do I do for the country?' And it's kind of like holding a pet bird. If you hold it too tight, you'll kill it. And if you hold on to office too tight, you'll kill our republic."
BY THE END of the session, most of Coburn's efforts had taken a beating. Of the nineteen parts in his amendment, just one had passed, and Coburn's standing among Senate Republicans, never strong, seemed to be slipping further with every battle. But Coburn was unfazed. On the last day of the 2006 session, he sat in his office with the hint of a smile around the corners of his mouth. He had just enjoyed a rare success—postponing the annual budget-approvals process into the New Year and giving Democrats control over many of the most important decisions—and his fellow Republicans were more irritated with him than ever.
For Coburn, the feeling had become familiar. Having entered the public spotlight for his social positions, far from the mainstream and widely condemned for his views on abortion and gay rights, he had long since adjusted to the outrage and indignation he aroused. If anything, his social views had bolstered him for the fiscal fight. In a world as upside down as Congress, where waste is the norm and prudence on the fringe, where a man fighting pork and fraud can be ostracized by his peers, maybe it takes someone who is comfortable with that, and has spent most of his adult life on the fringe already, to speak out in spite of the risks.
This came naturally to Coburn. "You can look at abortion, you can look at all the social issues you want," he said, "but none of those matter if we're not good stewards of the nation. I'm not going to be critical of the people who are pro-abortion. They have a different set of values than me. I can see their position, and I won't demean it. I counsel lots of women—and I love them to death—who have been through abortion. I've done two abortions myself, to save the lives of women. When you talk about abortion, emotion gets into it. But you can understand the position of the other side. When you look at what's happening with the American dollar, it is not as nuanced. The dollar is sliding against all major currencies in the world, because people are losing faith in our ability to repay all these loans. We're living on borrowed financial time. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican. Those are the facts."
Coburn's face was stark.
"When you're delivering a baby," he said, "and the baby's getting in trouble, and you can see the baby's heartbeat, which is normally about 130 or 140 beats per minute, going down to fifty or sixty, and you're standing there watching it go down, you know you've got about three minutes to make a decision. You can use a pair of forceps and try to pull it out, you can use a vacuum extractor, or you can leave labor and delivery, put her on the table, put her to sleep, cut a hole in her belly, and take it out with a C-section—but you've got to do something, and you've got to do it now. That baby's life depends on what you do in those three minutes. And that's exactly where we are in our country today. We are in those critical three minutes. If we wait to act, it's going to be too late. We're going to lose the baby."