WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Coburn, playing his familiar role of skunk at the Sunday school picnic, is arguing that massive federal spending in the wake of Hurricane Katrina must entail some sacrifice. By that he meant the pork so dear to his colleagues. That has evoked an icy response, not only from Congress but from the White House as well.
Coburn, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, telephoned Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to ask support for $15.3 billion in offsets based on the administration's own proposed terminations and spending reductions. Bolten politely informed the senator that the administration's hands were full dealing with Katrina's aftermath.
Coburn told me he did not blame Bolten but his superiors. The superior he meant was George W. Bush. On the Senate floor last week as the emergency Katrina bill was passed, Coburn declared: "I am disappointed in our president for not bringing forward with this bill recommended spending cuts that would easily be achieved in the discretionary budget of this country to pay for the disaster assistance." Citing calls for "sacrifice" by Americans, he declared that "it is no sacrifice on the part of Congress to steal $51.2 billion from our grandchildren."
When Bolten appeared before House Republicans the evening of Sept. 7, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee went to the microphone with complaints similar to Coburn's. Bolten responded, much as he had to Coburn, that this was not the time to try offsets when a 24-hour turnaround on the aid bill was necessary.
However, Coburn's problem is less Bolten or even Bush and more his Senate colleagues. While the House at least has tried to stay within the administration's bounds, the Senate threatens to run wild with new earmarks and additional spending. Senators are tapping money from the Defense budget on grounds all such funds will be restored.
Bolten promises to revisit offsets, and he can count on Coburn pressing him to keep that promise. Coburn's performance confirms dread of him as a senator by establishment Republicans, both in Oklahoma and the nation's capital. A plain-spoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., Dr. Coburn won no popularity contests with a principled assault on pork during his House tenure (1995-2000) that was ended by self-imposed term limits. He entered the Senate determined to keep a low profile, but that is difficult considering the Washington spending carnival under Republican rule.
When Congress was called back before Labor Day to pass a $10 billion first installment, Coburn on Sept. 1 declared Congress should "make budget sacrifices of its own if we expect the American people to do the same." On Sept. 6, Sen. John McCain, a longtime anti-pork crusader, joined Coburn's effort. They declared: "Members of Congress should, at least temporarily, deny themselves a few of the comforts of political office." But there has been no word of support from Republican leaders or the administration.
The $15.3 billion in OMB proposed cuts is just the beginning of the Coburn "sacrifices." He would cut into $27 billion of spending earmarked by individual senators and House members in this year alone. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee on federal financial management, he has found $41.5 billion in government overpayments because of poor accounting practices, $1.2 billion in an "over-priced" renovation of United Nations headquarters, $18 billion in General Services Administration (GSA) middle-man fees and $46 million in cost overruns at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Coburn's call for "sacrifice" means something entirely different on the left end of the ideological spectrum. In the House, one liberal Democrat after another has taken the floor to demand higher taxes in upper income brackets. A few successful Americans, not the elected politicians, would be doing the sacrificing.
Tom Coburn contends any government worker could find room to cut back spending in his own department before the federal leviathan demands more funds from any individual taxpayers. Ultimately, it is up to the government to sacrifice. As Coburn asserts, "It is inexcusable for the White House and Congress to not even make the effort to find any offsets."