Senator Tom Coburn’s government oversight legacy
Former Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) passing this weekend marked a rare moment of unity in this highly partisan era with an outpouring of tributes from liberal Sens. like Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and conservative senators like Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) praising their former colleague. Why?
One reason is that he was known as a man of integrity. Another is that he was a serious lawmaker.
Many Americans will no doubt remember the former Oklahoma senator as “Dr. No” for his record of blocking costly and unnecessary legislation. But the media stereotype obscures an important truth: Dr. Coburn actually devoted a majority of his time in the Senate to the important work of government oversight.
For 10 years, he served as a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Senate’s lead oversight body.
Dr. Coburn took that oversight responsibility seriously. He wanted to keep us safe. And financially secure, free of corruption, waste and fraud.
He partnered with former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to investigate corruption, fraud, and waste in the Social Security Disability Insurance program. He investigated the nation’s state and local fusion centers, which were funded to prevent terrorism but provided little value. He partnered with Sen. Levin on an investigation of the 2008 financial crisis.
The two senators shared a strong belief in Congress’s fact-finding responsibility. “Tom Coburn was a terrific oversight partner in the Senate – tough, fearless, and more interested in facts than politics,” Levin said in a statement.
Dr. Coburn also championed Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office. He leveraged congressional watchdogs in new ways. His 2010 amendment to the debt limit deal requiring GAO to annually report on duplication across government programs has led to $260 billion in government savings to date.
While famous for blocking bills, Dr. Coburn was also a bipartisan dealmaker. And once he reached an agreement, he became the bill’s strongest champion. He partnered with then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on bipartisan legislation to improve government spending transparency and with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) on a series of bills to reform government management and operations.
A large focus of his work was overseeing the Department of Homeland Security. He worked closely with the committee and the DHS leaders who were managing the sprawling, 240,000-person department responsible for securing the nation. With Senator Carper, he shaped national cybersecurity laws and policy. He negotiated and passed bipartisan legislation to authorize the department’s cybersecurity programs to help secure government and private sector information systems, while limiting the agency’s regulatory authority.
His last official action as a senator in January 2015 was to release a report presenting the findings of his decade of oversight of DHS. He respected former Secretary Jeh Johnson and appreciated his leadership. But he warned that the department was not achieving its core missions and that the nation’s security was at risk as a result. He documented DHS’s longstanding struggles with biodefense and pandemic preparedness, among many other problems.
Lawmakers and the American public will continue to draw lessons from Dr. Coburn’s oversight work, which is a credit to his work ethic and vision. He was a voracious reader and studied issues in a way that few of his colleagues could match. He directed his staff to present their work in detailed memos and often arrived at his office before dawn to read, provide direction and prepare for the day’s work. He strongly preferred to be with his family in Oklahoma, so every hour spent in Washington was put to good use.
Dr. Coburn directed his entire staff, led by his longtime Legislative Director Roland Foster, to continuously review government agencies to assess their performance and to identify waste, which he then reported to the nation. His annual Wastebook reports cast the national spotlight on government largess. He often focused his oversight work on conservative policy priorities, such as Defense spending. In all, he issued more than 50 government oversight reports, documenting government’s challenges and providing roadmaps for reform.
Today, as the nation confronts a global pandemic, policymakers can look to a 2007 report that Sen. Coburn wrote on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance. The review examined: “how an agency tasked with fighting and preventing disease has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars for failed prevention efforts, international junkets, and lavish facilities, but cannot demonstrate it is controlling disease.”
As the nation faces grave medical and fiscal challenges, Sen. Coburn’s approach to exercising Congress’s oversight responsibly is needed now more than ever. Current and future lawmakers ought to follow his example.
Keith Ashdown was Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staff director and Dan Lips was homeland security director for former Sen. Tom Coburn.
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