Government

Tom Coburn, RIP

Oklahoma's faithful foe of congressional "pork" died Saturday at 72.

Nate Jackson · Mar. 30, 2020

Tom Coburn, the former Republican senator from Oklahoma, died Saturday after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was a fighter who had already beaten melanoma, colon cancer, and a brain tumor, but alas, a fourth bout was not to be won. He was 72.

Coburn was not a career politician, noting, “Our Founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career.” He was a faithful Southern Baptist deacon and obstetrician in Muskogee who delivered more than 4,000 babies. He was first elected to the House in 1994 as part of that year’s Republican wave, winning a district that had gone Democrat for 73 years. The good doctor was specifically motivated to stop Bill Clinton’s version of government healthcare. He retired after three terms as promised, but then ran for Senate four years later, pledging to serve only two terms. He retired two years early due to cancer.

In many respects, Coburn was a father of the Tea Party. His fight against pork-barrel spending known as “earmarks” — including labeling the infamous Alaska highway project the “bridge to nowhere” and producing an annual “Wastebook” — was legendary and eventually led to a wider ban on wasteful earmarks, which he called “the gateway drug to our spending ruin.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board declared, “His investigation of fraud in the Social Security disability program was a model of Congressional oversight.” And that was only one example of his thorough oversight efforts.

Perhaps columnist Kimberley Strassel said it best upon Coburn’s retirement in 2015: “The pity is that history rarely hands out awards to those who stop bad things. Tom Coburn blocked more bad ideas and lousy legislation in Congress than most Americans will ever know.” He will be missed. Rest in peace.

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