WASHINGTON -- The Senate, which fancies itself the world's most exclusive club, has its Sir John Hawkins. He was the 18th-century musicologist whom Samuel Johnson called ``a very unclubbable man.'' The very unclubbable senator is Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, 57, a freshman Republican whose motto could be: ``Niceness is overrated.''
Coburn is the most dangerous creature that can come to the Senate, someone simply uninterested in being popular. When Speaker Dennis Hastert defends earmarks -- spending dictated by individual legislators for specific projects -- by saying that a member of Congress knows best where a stoplight ought to be placed, Coburn, in an act of lese-majeste, responds: Members of Congress are the least qualified to make such judgments.
Recently, when a Republican colleague called to say ``his constituency'' would not allow him to support Coburn on some measure, Coburn tartly told the senator that ``there is not one mention in the oath (of office) of your state.'' Senators are just not talked to that way under the ponderous rituals of vanity that the Senate pretends are mere politeness.
Coburn is an obstetrician, not a political philosopher, so he may not realize he is acting on the precepts Edmund Burke explained to the Bristol voters who elected him to Parliament in 1774. Burke said: Parliament is not an assemblage of ``ambassadors from different and hostile interests''; its business is the national interest, not ``local purposes'' or ``local prejudices.''
Coburn came to the nation's attention last October when he proposed taking the $223 million earmarked for Alaska's ``Bridge to Nowhere'' and using it to repair a New Orleans bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Because this threat to Alaska also threatened Congress' code of comity -- mutual respect for everyone's parochial interests -- his proposal lost by 67 votes. But rather than do the decent thing -- apologize, tug his forelock and slink away chastened -- he refused to stop talking about it, made it an embarrassment to the Senate and catalyzed revulsion against spending that is both promiscuous and parochial.
Civilization depends on the ability to make even majorities blush, so it is momentous news that shame may be making a comeback, even on Capitol Hill, as a means of social control. Embarrassment is supposed to motivate improved education in grades K through 12 under No Child Left Behind: That law provides for identifying failing schools, the presumption being that communities will blush, then reform. And embarrassment is Coburn's planned cure for Congress' earmark culture.