OTR Interviews

Coburn warns the nation about a catastrophic 'debt bomb'

Okla. senator discusses America's terrifying road to fiscal catastrophe in new book


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," May 1, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEW HOST: Senator Tom Coburn is giving it to us between the eyes. He says our country's staggering debt is the greatest threat to our national security. We spoke with Senator Coburn about his new book "The Debt Bomb."


VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, nice to see you, sir.

SEN. TOM COBURN, R-OKLA.: Good to see you.

VAN SUSTEREN: You have a new book, "The Debt Bomb." I guess the way to describe it is raw and disturbing.

COBURN: I think Washington is disturbing right now. I agree.

VAN SUSTEREN: In reading about the debt bomb in the book, I think one of the things that caught my attention was one of the chapters, you quote Abraham Lincoln, if you want to test a man's character, give him power. We are now facing a debt catastrophe. Why do you use that quote?

COBURN: Because I want people to make an assessment of where we are today and what the character is in Washington. If we address our problems and honest with the American people, we don't have a problem in front of us we can't solve. If we continue to lie and mislead the American people as to the seriousness and the urgency of our problems, what you can see that very much replicates the character that I see in Washington today.

VAN SUSTEREN: You talk about the numbers in your book, which I think are nonpartisan, entitlement and where we are going. You said 1950, 16 workers worked for beneficiaries under Social Security. And 10 years later, it went from 16 to five workers. We now have in this year, 2012, three workers for each beneficiary, so the number's declining. So you don't have to be a Republican or Democrat to know that that is the wrong direction.

COBURN: It is not just that, as well. You have all the baby-boomer, my generation that are going into Social Security. So this is going to two to one. Unless we reform it, what do we do? And so every year we put off reforming it means that the cost and the pain associated with reforming is going to be greater.

So we ought to be about talking about the real problems in the country today, explaining them in an adult way saying these are not partisan problems, every American is going to get cut on their Social Security when it fails. It is three years closer to being bankrupt this year than it was last year. It doesn't matter if you are a democrat or a Republican, your Social Security's going to be cut. Your grandkids are going to have to pay a ton more taxes if don't fix it. Why don't we do that?

VAN SUSTEREN: The American people are putting their money into the fund. You talk about this, you know, the culture here in the Senate. I guess the poster child that you mention is the bridge to nowhere where Senator Stevens staring you down on the Senate floor because you were there to take issue with it. I mean, that culture is right here. I mean, the American people are having a hard time changing the culture.

COBURN: There are two cultures. There's the culture of putting my state ahead of the best interest of the country. I understand that. That's part of the political culture. But the fact is what we are here for is to make sure the country's OK. I would posit that Oklahoma can't be healthy if the country isn't healthy, same with Alaska and every other state. The second culture is not facing up to the real problems and putting your career of not making difficult decisions so you protect your career, rather than making the difficult decisions to solve the problems of the country. It's OK to lose an election if you fix the country.

VAN SUSTEREN: You describe in the book how members of Congress come here to Washington and their motive when they first set foot here are "pure and noble." Those are the words you use. Something happens along the way. How do you go from pure and noble to just caring about yourself and getting reelected and not being the steward of the economy and letting the economy blow up so we have a debt bomb?

COBURN: I think it's human nature, one. Everybody likes to get a positive stroke. If you are getting lots of positive strokes, you don't want to give that up. I think it's the culture of careerism. And it goes back to the Abraham Lincoln quote. The people who really have character are the people who don't care if they lose power.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where are they? I mean, because we need them.

COBURN: You know, there are a lot of great people in Washington. And I don't demean -- mean to demean any of my colleagues. But a large portion of them have never done anything but public service. And so, you know, it's part of their career path. And so you want to stay on your career path. So you do what is politically expedient, rather than what is not expedient, in other words, counter to your best political interests to fix the country.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do we go back to the Abraham Lincoln quote, if you want to test a man's character, give him power and see what he does with it?

COBURN: I think we are failing. As an institution we're failing. Both parties have members who are failing. We're making decisions that are politically expedient for our position, rather than the truth to the American people.

Ask yourself this question, Greta -- why are we not addressing the preeminent existential threat to our country that exists today, which is our over-spending and expansive government and the debt which is absolutely unsustainable. When Admiral Mullen says the greatest threat to our country-- the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- is not Islamic terrorism, it is not China, it is not Russia. It is our debt. Tell me why we are not addressing that, right now, rather than playing political games about the election come November 2. When in fact, the future of our children and grandchildren, their standard of living, their ability to supply themselves what is needed for them and their families is put at risk? I would tell you that we are examples of people who have failed our character test.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why aren't we doing that? Every person in Washington wants to do that collectively.

COBURN: No leadership. The president hasn't called on us to do that. You haven't seen -- I mean, Paul Ryan's called and said we need to do this. Harry Reid's doing everything he can to not do that based on political dynamics. That's why. We have no leadership.

VAN SUSTEREN: Are you quitting? You are not running again. Have you had it?

COBURN: I have had it. I am going to fulfill my commitment and I am going to work every day to try to solve this problem. Not for my grandkids, but for everybody else's. My goal is that the federal government never waste one dollar. Now, I know that's an unachievable goal. But every day where I eliminate some waste or embarrass some people for totally blowing it is a day that's positive to get us back on track.

VAN SUSTEREN: The book, "The Debt Bomb," raw, disturbing, and, I might add, something we should read.

COBURN: Solvable. Every problem we have in front of us is solvable.

VAN SUSTEREN: Still solvable.

COBURN: We can do it with a lot of pain if we wait or with a small amount of pain for everybody, if we go on and get after it now. I don't want us to be Greece. That's where we are headed.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you, sir.

COBURN: Thank you. You are great.