In my Thursday morning interview with him, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok) explained his stand against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nv) government spending hotline. Coburn, perhaps the most relentless fiscal conservative in the Senate, demands that bills be debated and that Republicans get to offer amendments that will be voted on.
Reid refuses debate on the majority of measures that come before the Senate. As a result, Coburn has used a Senate parliamentary maneuver called a “hold” to prevent passage of dozens of pork-laden bills.
Now, Reid has threatened to put about 35 bills together in a “Coburn Omnibus” to be fought out this weekend. I asked Sen. Coburn about the battle and how he plans to win it. Here’s the (very slightly) edited transcript of the interview.
HUMAN EVENTS: Senator Coburn, good morning. We’re hearing a lot about the so-called “Coburn Omnibus” bill Sen. Reid is proposing. What is Reid’s beef?
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Actually, I name it something else. It’s Reid’s “Grow the Government and Spend More of Your Kids’ Money” bill.
HUMAN EVENTS: That’s more of an accurate label… How much federal spending is crammed into this nonsense?
COBURN: About $11.3 billion
HUMAN EVENTS: Is he creating new federal programs, too?
COBURN: Yeah, 36 new programs, $11.3 billion. His beef is that I won’t let the Senate pass things in the dark of night because I won’t agree.
HUMAN EVENTS: All you’re asking for is a debate and a vote?
COBURN: I think we ought to at least have an amendment for every new program he’s creating. There ought to be the opportunity to have a discussion and pay for it, how about an amendment to pay for it? Or at least change policy that we think the policy is wrong, and we ought to be able to have an amendment, at least one amendment on every billion dollars that we’re going to suck away from our grandkids.
HUMAN EVENTS: Mighty reasonable thing to do…
COBURN: First of all, they don’t want to have debate, they don’t want to be shown for what they’re actually doing. Many of these are good programs. The problem is, is we don’t get rid of bad programs to create new ones, we just let them both wrong.
HUMAN EVENTS: Tell us: what are some of the things you might reduce spending on in order to pay for these other things.
COBURN: It’s easy if you take the bills that are in the Justice Department title, which is title 2, there’s at least $2 billion a year wasted in the Justice Department. They spend I think $400 million the last 10 years on conferences. I would think we could maybe cut conferences 10 percent and maybe pay for some of the things like drug endangered kids or child pornography persecution. The interesting thing is that the Justice Department is the only federal agency, if they don’t spend their money at the end of the year they get to keep it and do with it what they want. So we’ve outlined over $2 billion worth of waste in the justice department. Why would we not take away some of that waste if we want to do something good?
HUMAN EVENTS: Again, that’s mighty reasonable. I’d like to spend a minute or two going through some of the really outrageous programs. What is this Captive Primates Safety Act?
COBURN: What they want to do is ban the interstate transfer of sub-human primates. Well, you can’t import them into this country, but they claim that there’s 13 injuries a year to sub-human primates and that we need to regulate interstate commerce on it so that you essentially eliminate humans owning sub-human primates. There’s a real big problem with that. And the problem is that there’s about 1,600 people out there that are severely disabled that are totally dependent on a subhuman primate to help them with their daily needs.
HUMAN EVENTS: You’re a medical doctor. Is that really a medical necessity to have these chimpanzees used?
COBURN: Absolutely. They’re utilized very effectively to give a greater quality of life for people who that are paraplegics.
HUMAN EVENTS: We’ve heard this bill called, “S-CHIMP” or “No Chimp Left Behind.”
COBURN: Well I think we’ve called it S-CHIMP. But the point is that means you take these 1,600 folks, they can’t travel to go see a relative across state lines. It becomes a federal law. I think the other thing that shows the absurdity of it. There’s 46,000 dog bites. I mean, if this is really the business of the federal government, why aren’t we addressing the real problem?
HUMAN EVENTS: This Omnibus bill seems to be another example of Harry Reid’s mischaracterization of what the Senate should be doing. He calls it his “Bill to Advance America’s priorities.” Is there anything about offshore drilling or brining the price of gas down in this bill?
COBURN: No, not a thing. Can you imagine that there’s anything that we shouldn’t be dealing with, that there’s nothing we should be dealing with until we fix the risks to our country being independent on foreign energy. Nothing takes priority over that. There should be nothing ahead of that. And we shouldn’t actually leave here for an August break until we have addressed the issue of energy.
HUMAN EVENTS: I think Sen. McConnell has basically put into play a strategy…dealing with the offshore drilling before August recess and not doing anything else before that’s done. Do you agree with that and how will it play out?
COBURN: Well, I do agree with it. And if he’s not successful then I would tell you anybody that votes to go to Harry Reid’s spend more money of our grandkids and grow the government bill shouldn’t be here. Because what it says is that priorities are misplaced. We’re going to concentrate on parochial issues for small groups and we’re not going to do what is in the best interest of the country.
HUMAN EVENTS: You said this whole package of stuff that Mr. Reid wants to combine is part of a culture there. I think you said we’re on a unsustainable course. Can you explain that for us?
COBURN: Why don’t we just talk about it in context of energy right now? Congress is finally starting to react as it should on energy. And why did we wait so long? Why do we wait until we’re in deep trouble until we fix it? My problem with the Congress is there is no vision. There is no thought about long-term thinking. And the biggest problem we have after we get past energy in this nation is how do we secure our future both from a national security point that has been put at risk because of the tremendous debt we have and our energy dependence, but how do we secure the future so that our children and our grandchildren are not bankrupted by the acts that we’re committing today?
The only serious statistic that I know is that if you are born today, you are assuming $400,000 dollars worth of new debt that will come to during your first thirty years of lifetime that you will have to pay off plus earn enough to eat, clothe yourself, try to get an education and maybe, possibly, find someplace to find a shelter.
HUMAN EVENTS: And Senator Reid is going to do what he can to increase that number.
COBURN: Yeah, he has and he has historically. But so have some Republicans so this isn’t partisan to me. The fact is that when we want to grow the government – and I’m okay with half the programs in this bill, I don’t have a disagreement with. I just think we ought to pay for them. I think we ought to have to make the hard choices that American families have to make everyday. That they have to prioritize what they’re going to do and how they’re going to pay for it.
And this Congress and this leader refuses to do that. And so they use political spin – they use the spin that say I’m not for prosecuting civil rights crimes. I’m absolutely for the “Emmet Till Bill” but I think, before we do it, let’s get some ways to pay for it. And it really goes down to these parochial issues of members of Congress… If you’re going to offer…and their excuse is “well these are just authorizations.” Well if they’re just authorizations then you don’t really intend to spend the money. And they say, “No, we intend to spend it.” And that’s what their press release. Well if you intend to spend it why don’t we decrease spending somewhere else so that this is more effective and we’re not charging it to our kids.
HUMAN EVENTS: There’s a lot of maneuvering. This coming weekend I understand the Senate is going to turn to this at some point tomorrow or even Saturday.
COBURN: Probably won’t get to this till Sunday.
HUMAN EVENTS: Wow. So you all are going to be in on Sunday. How do you see this playing out? I don’t want to know your secret strategy here but can you tell us – what are you going to do to prevent Mr. Reid from getting this monstrosity passed.
COBURN: Well, I may not be able to prevent him but what I said all along is we shouldn’t be doing all these bills in the dark, that there should be a full and open debate, there ought to be opportunities to amend them to pay for them, there ought to be an opportunity to amend them if there’s a policy question that the common sense Americans might say, that’s stupid, why would you do that? And if we had the debate and I lose I’m fine. But not having a debate and not amending and not exposing to the American people what our priorities are and what we think are important by debating an amendment, says that we don’t think we have an obligation to do that to the American people.
So, all I’ve said all along, I can’t block any bill from coming to the floor. That’s the majority leader’s priority. But I can say you’re not going to pass with me looking the other way. That’s what I’ve said – that if you wanna pass them, put them on the floor but have an honest and vigorous debate.
I plan on using all the sixty hours that are available for the debate to have the debate and if Americans will pay attention what they will learn is how stupid congress is.
HUMAN EVENTS: What can Americans do to help you right now? Should they be writing or calling Mr. Reid?
COBURN: I think if they called every republican senator and say how dare you get on an issue that is not this important to the American public when you didn’t solve the energy crisis, that’s number one. Number two, e-mail every senator, Republican or otherwise and say start thinking long term, not short term. Quit wasting money. And if you’re going to spend new money get rid of the waste somewhere else. There’s just 300 billion dollars a year in waste appear – and those aren’t my numbers. That’s the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office that do reports and do congressional research service. So, if we’re upset here we’re going to have an 800 billion dollar deficit here and no body but a few of us in the Senate are saying maybe we ought of cut some spending somewhere?
HUMAN EVENTS: Who’s going to stand with you on this?
COBURN: Oh there are a lot of us – John Kyle, Richard Bird, Jim DeMint, John Borrasso, Mike Enzi…you know the fact is that priorities matter. The fact that 94% of everything we do passes by unanimous consent and only 6% of what we do is out in the open, is it any wonder why only 9% of the people have confidence in this body? And that’s what we should be worried about. We have a crisis of confidence – people think we’re not connected. And this bill proves we’re not connected. We don’t know what our priorities are and we don’t believe that we’re getting paid for the things that we do.
HUMAN EVENTS: Well, we’re solidly behind you on this Senator and we hope that everyone who reads this takes your advice and calls and e-mails, not only Republicans but Mr. Reid and Democrats too saying lets stop fooling around.
COBURN: Its not that there’s not some good things in this, I’m not saying that. But what they need to do is get their pencils sharpened and get their focus back on what’s in the best interest of this country and doing a bill like this is not.