Coburn’s cognition

Tom Coburn’s Senate colleagues don’t know quite what to make of the doctor from Oklahoma. Many of them find him personally likable, but they can’t understand why he seems to want to change the way the exclusive club to which they all belong has been doing business for so long.

And what’s worse, they have no way of controlling the man. Coburn (R) left the House in 2000 after three terms there because he had voluntarily term-limited himself, and he says that he’ll retire from the Senate after two terms there to go back to practicing medicine in Oklahoma. What that means, of course, is that he won’t be around quite long enough to chair an important committee even if the GOP should retake the Senate at some point — and that, therefore, he doesn’t have to watch his manners lest party leaders squelch his ambitions.

Moreover, since he finds earmarks morally objectionable, his colleagues can’t control him by cutting off funds for a library or parking garage back home and instead have to either confront his arguments or find a way around him. That was a lot easier in the House because there isn’t all that much a lone congressman can do to derail spending programs there, but the Senate actually empowers folks like Coburn, who are willing to forsake the comity of the club and rely on the body’s rules to get their way.

And that is exactly what Coburn has been doing by placing “holds” on legislation that he believes to be hard to justify under the Constitution, duplicative of existing programs or just plain wasteful. He has, over the course of this session, demanded that his fellow legislators seek cuts or revenue to fund the programs they seem so cavalierly willing to sponsor and tried to force them to ask themselves whether the programs they seek to establish are really needed.

This willingness to object has, of course, prevented Senate leaders from simply passing spending for senators’ pet projects by unanimous consent and has forced the leadership either to abandon the bills objected to or to find a way to use the rules to get around Coburn’s objections. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week came up with a way to do this by creating what many in the Senate are referring to as the Coburn Omnibus: combining many of the bills to which the senator has objected, along with other bills designed to draw the votes needed to invoke cloture and move to a vote on the package (that vote was scheduled to take place Monday afternoon, and I’m assuming it passed).

That means that much of this week’s debate in the Senate will focus on Coburn’s objections to spending, which Monday’s headlines suggest will result in a record deficit next year that, as USA Today put it, “will saddle the next president with deepening budget problems in his first year in office.”

That news worries Coburn and should worry the rest of us, but one man it doesn’t worry is Reid, who argued late last week that Coburn’s objections to the package are unfounded because, since the bills in question are merely authorization bills rather than appropriations bills, their passage will have no impact on spending, the budget or the deficit. The senator even brandished a Congressional Budget Office letter to this effect with a grade-school lesson in the difference between authorizing and appropriating.

True in a technical sense, of course, but if the Senate leadership has no intention of ever appropriating the money to be spent as the legislation authorizes, Coburn wonders why Reid is so hot to pass it. In fact, he suggested over the weekend during floor debate on the package that someone is lying to someone. It’s either Reid, lying about never intending to fund the programs his colleagues are rushing to create, or him and his colleagues lying to their constituents by creating programs  they never intend to fund.

Coburn is right, of course, because in Harry Reid’s Senate it’s business as usual regardless of the consequences down the road. Coburn says whether he wins or loses on the final vote is far less important than that he is beginning to force his colleagues to actually debate and perhaps even consider the future consequences of the often mindless spending they authorize and later fund.

One can only hope he’s right.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.