Tom Coburn, last of his kind?

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) will get rolled this week.

Coburn, who will depart the Senate after a decade of service when Congress adjourns, will be most remembered for his crusades against improvident government spending. He has annually published a “Wastebook,” which highlights some of the excesses produced by government’s $10 billion-per-day spending habit. The book chronicles such extravagances as a $387,000 National Institutes of Health grant to provide 18 rabbits with Swedish massages.

Some of Coburn’s colleagues don’t find him, his Wastebook or the Swedish massages amusing. They are irked by Coburn’s use of Senate rules to impede passage of measures they favor. Those rules are increasingly jeopardized by Democrats and a new generation of conservatives who would lay waste to the rights of individual senators to insist on extended debate. Many on the right already have embraced the left’s dubious procedural tactic that eliminated the filibuster for most nominations. Were a future Congress to extend that ruinous action to the legislative filibuster, the tactics Coburn has often successfully employed would become relics of a bygone age.

{mosads}Which would suit outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) just fine. Reid has made no secret of his antipathy for Coburn’s tactics. The feeling is mutual. Coburn once called Reid an “absolute a——,” a remark for which he later apologized.

The conflict between the two persists, despite the apology. Coburn has continued to vex Reid, frustrating his efforts to pass a long list of bills, including dozens that deal with the conveyance of public lands. Before Coburn arrived, the Senate had routinely adopted public lands bills by unanimous consent. He halted that process by objecting to such measures — 90 of them in 2007 and 2008 alone. Coburn expressed concern about the bills’ effects on private property rights. He also argued that while each bill authorized negligible (at least in government terms) sums of money, the cumulative cost of rubber-stamping the measures would total billions. That money, once authorized, would later be appropriated by means of massive continuing resolutions or omnibus spending bills, where the projects would attract little or no scrutiny.

Coburn prevailed when Congress adjourned at the end of 2008 without enacting any of the public lands bills. But Reid rolled Coburn in early 2009, using his overwhelming Senate majority to invoke cloture on a 1,218 page, $5.5 billion measure that authorized 160 public lands projects.

Reid will win again this week when the Senate takes up the Defense authorization bill. The text of that bill was published last Tuesday. The House passed it on Thursday after one hour of debate. The measure runs 1,648 pages, 452 of which have nothing to do with national security. Those pages deal with public lands, including seven land conveyances in Reid’s home state of Nevada. Some of those provisions are no doubt unobjectionable and even meritorious; others less so. They will become law without congressional debate that might have distinguished the good from the bad and ugly.

Though Coburn seems certain to lose this battle, he has won many others. His adroit use of Senate rules, including the requirement that 60 votes are needed to invoke cloture, has enabled him to punch above his weight in bouts over federal spending. That rule has lent force to Coburn’s objections and facilitated more than his share of successes, despite having served in the minority for all but two years of his tenure. 

Senators used to employ similar objections to nominations — known as “holds” — to extract concessions from the executive branch. The elimination of the filibuster on most nominations denied senators that prerogative, thereby conferring more power on the White House and its political appointees in federal departments and agencies.

Stripping senators of their right to filibuster nominations has nevertheless pleased many Republicans of conservative ideology and leftist temperament. Many of them seem to regard Senate rules as arbitrary and malleable, a tiresome vestige of 18th-century white guy sensibilities. They prize momentary political advantage over the deliberative process that has characterized the Senate for more than two centuries. Perhaps these conservatives will one day make common cause with their brethren on the left to eliminate the legislative filibuster as well.

If they do, Tom Coburn may come to be regarded as the last of his breed.

Badger was formerly deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs, where he helped formulate the George W. Bush administration’s policy and legislative strategy.

Tags Filibuster Political corruption Tom Coburn

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