- The Washington Times - Monday, January 20, 2014

As the bipartisan omnibus budget bill was being signed into law last week, Oklahoma’s Sen. Tom Coburn announced that he will retire without finishing his term. Mr. Coburn’s decision had nothing to do with the bill, but its authors — those who stuffed it with goodies, and senators and congressmen who will have to defend it to the press and their constituents — probably wish he was already winging his way back to Oklahoma.

Tom Coburn has been the hardest-working and most knowledgeable opponent of wasteful pork-barrel spending in either house of Congress. During his six years in the House and then as a senator, he and his staff have made an art of delving into legislation and taking on those hypocritical enough to talk about saving taxpayers’ money, reducing the deficit, and balancing the budget while supporting spending measures that do none of those things.

It was Mr. Coburn who made earmarks an issue and forced his own party to take a pledge not to utilize them. It’s Mr. Coburn who stands up on the floor of the Senate with specifics; programs that are duplicative, wasteful and embarrassingly useless. When Mr. Coburn goes after these programs, he has had more success in eliminating at least some of them than those who rail on in general terms about wasteful spending.

Amazingly, the Oklahoman manages this without personal animosity, and while those whose proposals he’s targeted over the years wish he’d stop, few dislike him.

They all know that in Tom Coburn, they are dealing with a decent, honest man who simply won’t compromise on principle, but who realizes, too, that in this city success requires one to get along and sometimes even compromise on minor matters to achieve one’s goals.

Mr. Coburn has done just that.

How else can one explain the fact that President Obama considers him a friend and that he has sometimes gotten into strategic and tactical arguments with fellow conservatives?

At the end of the day, though, everyone who knows him or has worked with him realizes that his commitment to principle is nonnegotiable and that he is one senator who can object without being personally objectionable.

Those who care about reducing government spending, the deficit and ultimately the federal debt are going to miss him. He’s leaving for health reasons, but Mr. Coburn during his years of service in Washington has never become a Washingtonian.

He’s happier being known as Doctor Coburn than Senator Coburn, and for years defied congressional ethics rules forbidding outside work to return home to deliver babies. He came to Washington in the first place to do what the Founders thought people should come here for; namely, to do good, rather than to do well.

Mr. Coburn fits the classic definition of the “citizen politician” better than anyone else currently serving in either house of Congress.

As this year’s $1.1 trillion, 1,582-page omnibus legislation and the deal that led to it moved through Congress, Mr. Coburn has quite rightly been critical of the cavalier way both parties have been willing to break the sequestration and budget caps that were actually having some impact on runaway spending just so they can go home bragging that they have avoided a shutdown and worked across the aisle “to govern.”

As usual, he’s done more than that. Mr. Coburn has identified outrageous spending in the bill that is both irresponsible and proves that making a deal just to be able to say you made a deal is a terrible idea. Mr. Coburn likes to call the Defense Department the “Department of Everything” and various provisions in the omnibus bill support his description.

Consider a few of the outrageous proposals in the bill that Congress passed and the president signed, including millions in nondefense spending stuffed into the defense appropriations portion of the bill because it’s the easiest way to get wasteful programs approved, even if they have nothing to do with defense and duplicate programs already being funded in other agencies.

This includes money for Alzheimer’s, lung, prostate and breast cancer research, unwanted and unrequested weapons systems or weapons systems that just don’t seem to work. This includes full funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that many defense experts think just hasn’t lived up to its billing and represents the single most expensive weapons system in U.S. history.

Mr. Coburn, as is his wont, released an analysis of the entire bill that should, but won’t, embarrass its sponsors who, as Republican appropriator Hal Rogers of Kentucky said, are “giddy over its passage.” Special-interest spenders and their supporters do tend to get a little giddy when they get their hands into the taxpayer’s pocket.

His colleagues should know, though, that while Mr. Coburn may head back to Oklahoma at the end of the current session, he’ll be around for a while asking the same embarrassing questions he’s asked throughout his career.

The spenders will have the same trouble answering as always, but this time they’ll take some comfort knowing he won’t be around when the next pork-laden appropriations round begins.

That should make the responsible taxpayer very uncomfortable.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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