One of Oklahoma’s most beloved lawmakers has passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Tom Coburn was 72, and while he will be missed by family and many of his professional colleagues, there are undoubtedly a lot of swamp creatures in DC who are not shedding any tears over his passing.
As one of the few honest men in Washington, Coburn racked up a lot of enemies over the years, including Newt Gingrich and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Even though he didn’t endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016, Coburn was himself a very “Trumpian” figure in many ways.
Coburn first entered Congress during the Republican landslide of 1994. For those old enough to remember, this was an epic turnaround for the House of Representatives, which had been under Democrat control for decades. The crop of freshmen were fiscal conservatives dedicated to cutting taxes and stopping the Democrats from enacting First Lady Hillary Clinton’s proposed socialist takeover of the American health care system.
Rep. Coburn went to Washington with a mission to change the system from within. One of his main issues, which he fought to bring about for years, was term limits. He ran for the House on a pledge to serve only six years – just three terms – and then vowed to retire. He made good on that promise, leaving office at the end of his third term in 2000. He went back home and back to practicing medicine. (He was staunchly pro-life and delivered somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 babies during his medical career.)
The vote on term limits was one of Coburn’s biggest disappointments in Congress. Term limits were wildly popular among Republican voters in the 1990s, because many of us were disgusted by the fact that so many Representatives and Senators go into the job as ordinary people and leave politics years later as fabulously wealthy individuals. It shouldn’t work that way.
President Trump, for example, has lost nearly half of his personal wealth since 2016 – and he still donates his presidential salary to a worthy cause every fiscal quarter. Bernie Sanders, the supposed socialist who has never held a real job, has several mansions and several millions in personal net worth.
That broken system was Tom Coburn’s main mission in Washington. But then-Speaker Newt Gingrich set up a “Queen of the Hill” scenario to ensure that term limits would fail. A “Queen of the Hill” is when Congress allows a vote on several different versions of a bill, in order to make it fail. Gingrich allowed votes on three different term limits bills – one for six years, one for eight years and one for twelve years.
Every Republican voted in favor of at least one of the bills, but none received majority support. This allowed every Republican congressman to go back home and claim to his or her constituents that they “voted for term limits,” when every single one of the crooks knew that it was a sham.
After leaving the House in 2000, Coburn went straight back to practicing medicine, content to have served the three terms he had promised. But a few years later, the voters of Oklahoma called him back to run for US Senate. Coburn agreed, and easily won.
Thanks to the two terms Tom Coburn served in the Senate before retiring in 2015, you can now carry a concealed weapon in all 59 of America’s National Parks.
Coburn also became an opponent of the Iraq War, a conflict that started during his hiatus from public office. He was in the extreme minority in the Senate that voted to cut off funding to continue the Iraq War, on two separate occasions in 2007. Coburn took a lot of heat from the conservative establishment for a statement that would be echoed by Donald Trump a few years later: “I think it was probably a mistake going into Iraq.”
If you want to know how America ended up with Donald Trump as president, a good primer is actually a book that Coburn wrote about his time in the US House: “Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders.” It’s an eye-opening look at how the corrupt system in DC really works. It’s also a great reminder of just what a weasel “Republican” Joe Scarborough of MSNBC is.
Coburn was a true rarity in Congress – an honest man, even when it cost him. While I didn’t agree with him on every issue, you could always trust him to give you his actual perspective, rather than a political calculation. He’ll be missed, but Tom Coburn has gone home to his reward.