In praise of Tom Coburn and his dogged rebuttal to President Obama

Here’s the good news about the sequester: it prompts the country to take a long hard look at where our tax dollars go. Democrats oppose the mandated budget cuts because of their likely impact on cherished programs like Head Start; they should fear them because of the waste and foolishness voters are likely to uncover. The last time Americans looked under the hood of the federal engine, the Tea Party was born and Democrats lost control of the House.

That was in 2009, when the Obama administration embarked on its $800 billion stimulus program. It was a bleak time for the country, with soaring unemployment and swooning house prices; we needed a few chuckles, and found plenty in the stimulus reports. Who can forget the nearly $2 million spent photographing thousands of ant species in the Southwest Indian Ocean Islands? Or the $700,000 spent by scientists trying to create a joke machine?

Today, the joke is on U.S. taxpayers, who are being told by President Obama that even minor reductions in spending will bring the country to its knees.


Early on, the media willfully parroted White House alarums. More recently, even the fawning press corps couldn’t swallow false tales of massive teacher layoffs and ICE detainees being released because of pinched budgets.

An even greater pivot was executed Monday by the New York Times, which ran a story about how the sequester might allow the president to go after Pentagon programs that he considers wasteful. Are we to believe that the Defense Department is the only agency where mandated pruning might be useful?

Senator Tom Coburn would certainly argue otherwise. He has offered a dogged rebuttal to Mr. Obama’s scare-mongering, pointing to near-painless ways the government could accomplish the mandated cuts.

He most recently wrote a letter to USDA head Tom Vilsack recommending that rather than furloughing food inspectors, the agency might instead cancel its attendance at two West Coast farm fairs featuring “guest chefs” and “exceptional local wines, brews and spirits.” Another missive from Coburn’s desk recommended to Ashton Carter at the Department of Defense that his agency cancel “Grill It Safe” – a cooking show highlighting the barbequing skills of two Grill Sergeants.

Coburn also thought the DoD might lay off the eight employees who serve on the Board of Geographic Names, tasked with naming streams and mountains across the U.S. He suggested in his letter that rather than compromise our troops or our readiness, the agency should rethink giving grants like the one spent creating an iPhone app that alerts users when they should take a coffee break, or funding projects like making better beef jerky in France.

While amusing, items such as those highlighted by Mr. Coburn make a mockery of our budget process and of Congressional oversight.  He repeatedly points out waste – such as the 20 overlapping federal programs that study invasive species, the 14 duplicative efforts aimed at student foreign exchange opportunities, the 9 separate groups studying biofuels. Coburn’s findings are backed up by a recent report from a House oversight committee, which concludes that federal agencies wasted as much as $67 billion last year.

In 2011, Mr. Coburn authored a report called “Back in Black” in which he identified $9 trillion in savings that could be achieved over the next decade, balancing our national budget. With the government scrambling to find $85 billion in reductions, Coburn’s ideas hit home.

Republicans in Congress win points from voters for trying to hold the line on spending, even while their overall approval ratings are dismal. Americans understand that we cannot rack up trillion-dollar deficits year after year without endangering the country – after all, President Obama has told us so. But, polls show that most of us don’t want significant cuts in valued programs like Medicare or Social Security. That’s why Coburn’s work is so valuable; it validates the country’s suspicion that there’s a lot of pork in the government’s budget.

The GOP is right to balk at higher taxes – on the wealthy or anyone else. The impact of tax hikes is more damaging to growth than the fall-out from spending cuts. Former Obama Council of Economic Advisors head Christina Romer and her husband David showed in a study that tax hikes penalize growth by a factor of three to one; most studies put the impact of spending cuts at roughly 1.4 to one. Also, recent analysis from the Tax Policy Center shows the wealthy are paying higher taxes than they have for decades. It is also true that our highest earners account today for an above-average share of overall spending. We need that group to prop up growth.

Spending cuts, done intelligently, can help get our budget, and our economy, get back on track. It’s time President Obama climbed aboard.