That was quite a shock wave rocking the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate today when a freshman senator from Oklahoma stood on the floor of "the world's greatest deliberative body" and challenged his colleagues to end the charade.
The charade, that is, of endlessly mouthing the cliches of fiscal responsibility while taking to record levels the shameful practice of log-rolling - "I'll vote for your pet spending project no matter how bad it is if you vote for my pet spending project, no matter how bad it is."
Members of Congress call it "congressional courtesy." Weary taxpayers don't.
Closely related to log-rolling is the congressional maxim that "to get along, you have to go along," especially if you are a freshman or from a small state. Coburn is both a freshman and from a state with only a handful of electoral votes.
Senators and Representatives have been log-rolling since the First Congress, of course, but never before with the intensity of the current GOP-led Congress. Appropriations bills now routinely gain approval with hundreds or thousands of "earmarks," which is Hill-talk for pork barrel projects inserted by individual members to benefit their district or state.
But then came Hurricane Katrina and Coburn, who previously served time during the Clinton administration in the U.S. House before taking a term-limit induced sabbatical before winning a close election to the Senate in 2004. He hasn't really made much of a splash in the Senate until this week.
But yesterday he stood up and committed the unpardonable sin of not going along to get along. He offered amendments requiring that previously approved earmarks favored by colleagues be cancelled and the tax dollars instead spent on Hurricane recovery. There wasn't much money at stake in the particular projects targeted by Coburn, but it was the principle that mattered.
That's why so much of the response to Coburn was pure outrage from the unprincipled. Sen. Patty Murray, the very liberal Washington Democrat, warned that any senator supporting the Coburn amendments would find projects in his or her own state being given the evil eye by annoyed colleagues who don't want to rock the log-rolling boat.
And Alaska's Ted Stevens, the Old Bull Republican moderate who has been a major obstacle to conservative reform since the Reagan administration, stood on the floor and thundered that he would leave the Senate if the Coburn amendment passed.
Stevens needn't have worried, at least for now. His colleagues soundly defeated Coburn's proposal. In fact, only 15 brave senators said aye when the roll was called. The only surprise was how many familiar conservative names were, sadly, among the 82 senators who voted against Coburn. This speaks volumes about why so little actual conservative reform has been achieved since 1994. They talk the talk but they don't walk it.
So what's next? No matter what they think, the future doesn't depend upon the Ted Stevens or Patty Murrays. It only depends on Tom Coburn. Today, he forced the Senate to decide which was more important - building a shelter for dogs and cats in Lincoln Chaffee's home state or helping people in Louisiana and Mississippi made homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
Ted Stevens' purple rage and Patty Murray's veiled threats represent the corrupt essence of Establishment Washington politics and today we saw what that establishment truly cares about. It isn't people without roofs over their heads in Louisiana or Mississippi.
So the question now is will Coburn remain steadfast? Senate rules still give individual senators great opportunities to force such showdowns. If Coburn stands his ground today, the American people will take care of tomorrow just fine.
Coburn understands that, which is why I think he is just the man for the job. He isn't here to stay here; he came back to Washington to do what he can as long as he can to help change America for the better. That's why the shouting and blustering on the Senate floor will only confirm for Coburn the rightness of his path.
If you doubt that, read this exchange between Coburn and Hugh Hewitt's guest host, Jef Rabbin, during an interview
that took place as the Senate was voting on Coburn's amendments:"JB: Well, does that bother you, Senator? I mean, are you worried so much about Oklahoma projects?
"TC: No. I don't ask for any projects. I ran on a platform of saying the biggest problem we face in our country is financial and economic, and cultural in Washington, that if we don't change that, I promised you I will not earmark a thing until the budget is in surplus.
"TC: So I don't have any earmarks. So I don't have any...you know, there's no power over me to withhold earmarks, because I have none.
"JB: Well, how tough is it going to be, though, to undo this culture of pork? I mean, the porksters are all around you. I mean, we're not naming names, but you're outnumbered there pretty solidly, so...
"TC: Look, when the American people want things to change, they will change. Just as like in 1994, they changed? It's this year's time. Make them change. You know, hold them accountable."There's Democrats and Republicans up here, but we're all Americans, and we ought to be thinking about the heritage that has come before us, and the legacy that's going to follow us. And the legacy that's going to follow us today is a millstone around the neck of our grandchildren, because we're going to leave them so far in debt, and we haven't even begun to talk about how do we fix Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid."
God really must have a sense of irony; why else would He put a doctor with nothing to lose and a disaster of biblical proportions in exactly the right place at the right time to accomplish the right things?
Go get'em Tom!UPDATE:
My apologies to the good people of Oregon for my saddling you with Patty Murray and to the good people of Washington state for thereby not acknowledging your suffering. :-) The error is now corrected.UPDATE II:
Here are the Yeas and Nays on the Coburn admendment to transfer funding from "the bridge to nowhere" in Alaska to Hurricane Katrina recovery in Louisiana and Mississippi:
Allard (R-CO)Allen (R-VA)Bayh (D-IN)Burr (R-NC)Coburn (R-OK)
Conrad (D-ND)DeMint (R-SC)DeWine (R-OH)Feingold (D-WI)Graham (R-SC)
Kyl (R-AZ)Landrieu (D-LA)Sessions (R-AL)Sununu (R-NH)Vitter (R-LA)
Akaka (D-HI)Alexander (R-TN)Baucus (D-MT)Bennett (R-UT)Biden (D-DE)Bingaman (D-NM)Bond (R-MO)Boxer (D-CA)Brownback (R-KS)Bunning (R-KY)Burns (R-MT)Byrd (D-WV)Cantwell (D-WA)Carper (D-DE)Chafee (R-RI)Chambliss (R-GA)Clinton (D-NY)Cochran (R-MS)Coleman (R-MN)Collins (R-ME)Cornyn (R-TX)Craig (R-ID)Crapo (R-ID)Dayton (D-MN)Dodd (D-CT)Dole (R-NC)Domenici (R-NM)Dorgan (D-ND)
Durbin (D-IL)Ensign (R-NV)Enzi (R-WY)Feinstein (D-CA)Frist (R-TN)Grassley (R-IA)Gregg (R-NH)Hagel (R-NE)Harkin (D-IA)Hatch (R-UT)Hutchison (R-TX)Inhofe (R-OK)Inouye (D-HI)Isakson (R-GA)Jeffords (I-VT)Johnson (D-SD)Kennedy (D-MA)Kerry (D-MA)Kohl (D-WI)Lautenberg (D-NJ)Leahy (D-VT)Levin (D-MI)Lieberman (D-CT)Lincoln (D-AR)Lott (R-MS)Lugar (R-IN)Martinez (R-FL)McConnell (R-KY)
Mikulski (D-MD)Murkowski (R-AK)Murray (D-WA)Nelson (D-FL)Nelson (D-NE)Obama (D-IL)Pryor (D-AR)Reed (D-RI)Reid (D-NV)Roberts (R-KS)Rockefeller (D-WV)Salazar (D-CO)Santorum (R-PA)Sarbanes (D-MD)Shelby (R-AL)Smith (R-OR)Snowe (R-ME)Specter (R-PA)Stabenow (D-MI)Stevens (R-AK)Talent (R-MO)Thomas (R-WY)Thune (R-SD)Voinovich (R-OH)Warner (R-VA)Wyden (D-OR)PorkbustersCongressPoliticsMediaTom Coburn