Issues & Insights

Tom Coburn’s Legacy – Politics, Policy, and Personal

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When Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) left office in 2015, the national debt was about $18 trillionToday, weeks after he died, it’s over $24 trillion and growing rapidly. 

As a fiscal conservative who interviewed Coburnreviewed one of his books, and long admired his work, I wondered about his death: In our era of lying, bitter partisanship, and grossly irresponsible debt, what had Coburn’s ethical, fiscally conservative record had left behind?

So, I spoke with those who knew him personally and professionally. Here’s what they said.

Jim Demint, former U.S. Senator from South Carolina

Many would say Tom’s biggest legacy is sounding the alarm on wasteful spending and debt, but his biggest impact on other legislators and staff was his love for others and strong character derived from his unshakable faith in Jesus. He never let the Swamp change who he was.

John Hart – Senator Coburn’s former Communications Director, co-author of two of Coburn’s books, and the author of a lengthy tribute to Coburn

His greatest policy legacy is policy itself. What I mean is that in this age of narcissistic exhibitionism, in which progress is too often defined by “here today, gone tomorrow media” visibility, Coburn was focused on the actual work of legislating. The list of specifics is long. His successful effort to end earmarks is near the top, along with his pioneering work on health care policy. 

In terms of politics, he proved beyond any doubt that a genuine citizen legislator, in the mold envisioned by our founders, can both have an impact and be popular with the electorate. He re-election efforts were blowouts because he wasn’t concerned with being popular. Still, the voters rewarded him, which should be profoundly encouraging to anyone concerned about the long-term viability of the republic.  

Jamison Faught – One of the 4,000 babies delivered by Coburn, an Oklahoma blogger who published tributes to the Senator, and brother to a former Coburn staffer

Dr. Coburn threw every fiber of his being into accomplishing very intentional goals. He was not driven by the egotistical nature so often found in politicians. His staff can point to dozens of times where he allowed others to take credit for work that he and his office did the bulk of the leg-work on. His medical staff and his congressional staff all attest to his exceptional work ethic, and he inspired countless others to pursue excellence in their own vocations and callings.

Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform

Senator Coburn was a leader in the fight to end the corruption of earmarks and make them toxic. And he led the fight for full transparency in federal spending. Those two victories together make every other fight for limited government easier to win.

Jonathan Bydlak – Director of the R Street Institute’s Fiscal & Budget Policy Project, and the one person on this list who did not know Coburn personally

Dr. Coburn was truly a giant of the legislature. In the policy community, he’ll probably be remembered best for his “Wastebooks,” which became a fixture in Washington, highlighting the most egregious examples of things government does that it shouldn’t. But I’ll remember him most for his political legacy, which is largely as someone who illustrated every day that you can stick to your principles and still be friends with those you disagree with. For someone who voted “no” so many times on his colleagues’ priorities, he sure was well-liked. That’s an example we all should follow.

Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) – Ranking Member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who served with Coburn on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

My friend Tom Coburn was so many things a leader should be. He was brilliant. He was principled. He excelled in everything he did in all the seasons of his remarkable life – in business, in medicine, as a congressman and later as a U.S. senator. He was a conservative with a heart as big as Oklahoma. He loved his extraordinary wife Carolyn and their daughters and grandchildren with every fiber of his being. And he loved our country deeply. 

We did not agree on everything, or even most things. But we respected one another’s opinion and chose to focus on those areas where we could find agreement. The result was substantive and lasting solutions to strengthen our nation’s cyber defenses, bolster the U.S. Postal Service, increase transparency across government, safeguard taxpayer dollars and combat waste, fraud and abuse. Many people liked to refer to Tom Coburn as ‘Dr. No,’ but he and I were often able to find a way to yes. The work we did helped pave the way for the creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), our nation’s lead cyber agency. We worked together to bring the 2010 Census back from the brink. For Tom, these weren’t partisan efforts. Rather, it was making sure our system worked better for those we served, and I was proud to be his wingman in those efforts. 

To say that Tom’s unwavering beliefs infuriated those who disagreed with him would be an understatement. He was famously stubborn and there was no shortage of folks maddened by his hardline stances. But it is a testament to his fundamental decency that he formed so many unlikely friendships over the years, including with President Barack Obama. Tom showed us that you can disagree with people, but still get along with them — a lesson that is especially needed today.

And finally, Tom Coburn never gave up. He never gave up. In the end, Tom was a deeply principled human being who always sought to do what he believed was right. A man of deep faith, he believed that we have a moral obligation to the least of these in our society, but since we don’t have unlimited resources, we should meet that moral obligation in fiscally sustainable ways. He spent a good part of his life delivering babies into this world and making sure they had a good start in life. Later, in Congress, he worked every day to make sure that they had a country to grow up in that fulfilled the promises of our Declaration of Independence – ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Dustin Siggins is the founder and CEO of Proven Media Solutions.

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