- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2000

WASHINGTON — When Tom Coburn first ran for Congress to represent Oklahoma's Second District in 1994, he said he believed in term limits and promised to serve only three terms. Now he is approaching the end of his third term, and he still believes in term limits.

Coburn is not running for re-election — he is the rare and happy pol who keeps his word.

“I think something's gone awry, and I don't know what or when,” the Republican said from his Capitol Hill office last week. “I don't think term limits are the panacea. But there has to be something more important than getting elected.”“

It is because incumbents from both parties spend too much time jockeying for re-election, or to give their party an edge, that so much bad legislation gets written.

“I knew I was only going to be here six years, and that gave me a tremendous amount of freedom that other people don't have,” he noted. Liberated by term limits, he has fought pork-barrel spending. Last year, he forced Speaker Dennis Hastert to pull a bill, after Coburn highlighted $21.2 billion of “corporate welfare” and pork-barrel spending. He enjoys tweaking the GOP leadership, which he dismisses as “ineffective, because they're not willing to sacrifice their position of leadership to control spending.” Amen, brother.

When House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster's office offered Coburn $15 million in highway funds for his support of the 1998 transportation bill, Coburn played back the voice mail with the offer to his colleagues in the House.

He bucked the Republican Party by voting against a bill to limit the legal liability of small businesses. He sponsored a measure directing the Department of Defense to comply with federal financial management laws.

Coburn has been the rare voice of reason as Washington set out to pander to senior voters with prescription drug benefits for people who don't need them. “Why is it that we should only help seniors? Because they're the greatest voting bloc? Is that our motivation?” If bad legislation is passed, Coburn fully expects the cost of this new benefit to be shifted to people in private plans.

Trained as a doctor, Coburn still delivers babies when he's home in his district. His staff calls him Dr. Coburn — a point that is drilled home during his annual “safe-sex sideshow” for House members and staffers, during which Coburn, who has treated people with sexually transmitted diseases, discusses the medical consequences of unsafe sex.

It could be that by cleaving to his profession, he has always kept a foot outside the vortex that makes most members in this building forget that they came to Washington to serve, not to rule.

His streak of independence and willingness to buck his party have made this very conservative Republican highly popular in an increasingly Democratic district. As the “Almanac of American Politics” reports, Coburn's district voted 47 percent for Bill Clinton, 40 percent for Bob Dole in 1996; Coburn won by a 55-to-45 margin. In 1998, 58 percent of his district voted to re-elect him.

Coburn's success proves how hungry voters are for a representative who will stand by what he thinks is right.

What is good for Coburn is not good for the Republican Party. In November, his seat could go to a Democrat. Also, his decision to stick to his word means his staff has been term-limited as well; so the joy of working for a man of principle is tempered with the knowledge that it means hitting the pavement for a new position.

So be it, says Coburn, who boasts of “Coburn's inverse law of politics: The longer you've been here the less power you should have. You're closer to your district when you first come here than you are at any other time.”

And so Coburn is walking away from power. You have to admire him, even as you recognize the bitter truth about term limits: The kind of politician who will keep his word, even when it means losing power, sticks to his word. Those who can't stick to principle are the only ones left.

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