THE WASHINGTON TIMES
During the past two weeks, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, used an arcane parliamentary procedure to seize control of the Senate floor and force fellow senators to vote on individual pork projects they had inserted into an emergency spending bill for war and for hurricane relief.Charles Hurt, Capitol Hill bureau chief for The Washington Times, interviewed Mr. Coburn last week:
Q: There were a lot of Republican senators who voted to keep the $700 million “railroad to nowhere,” but turned around and voted against the overall spending bill on the grounds that it was too bloated with extra spending.
A: But they didn’t offend the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Q: When you started out, you predicted you could save as much as $2.68 billion of the $14 billion in pork that senators inserted in the “emergency” war spending bill. How much were you ultimately successful at eliminating?
A: $15 million. But remember, we’re not measuring it that way. This is a long-term strategy to change behavior in the Congress and to change that behavior by exciting the American people and having them start paying attention. And they are. It’s amazing. You saw the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on earmarks. How in the world did earmarks get to be the highest level [of concern among voters]? It got to be the highest level by the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the bloggers that we’re using, the attacks that we’re making. If something’s not going to go through an authorizing process, then the American people deserve to have it debated on the floor.
The strategy is to raise the level to where you pique the American people’s interest in it so they demand change. The wonderful thing about our country is American people still control it. And if they become aware and engaged, things change. Our strategy all along is to use the Senate to engage the American people to demand change. So, raising that level is what I’m trying to do.
Do you go home and explain that even though Mississippi has a great plan for reinvigorating their Gulf Coast, that we should pay for moving a $750 million railroad so they can have about $10 billion in new property available, for the state of Mississippi. I mean, how do you explain it? So, if we educate the American people enough on to where they ask good questions, you can’t defend it. You can’t defend that vote.
Q: There were 15 amendments on individual spending proposals you withdrew. Why did you withdraw them?
A: The larger point. What you do is you irritate, irritate, but you don’t want to cause bleeding. We made our point. You can do it to the point where you totally alienate people or you can make your point and have caused enough pain to draw attention to the problem without alienating your ability to do it again. I had made my point. You’d be surprised by the number of people who didn’t vote with me that came back up to me and said, “You keep doing what you’re doing.” That’s a positive signal to say they know in their heart we got to change this system, but they’re not at the point yet where they can figure out politically that they can be with me.
Q: Describe some of the interaction on the floor between you and Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Republican.