Read: The Senate-stalling Republican no one hates
The monomania made Coburn famously unclubbable, even in the supposedly collegial Senate, even among his fellow Republicans. He came to politics after two successful careers, one as a business owner, meeting payrolls and negotiating union contracts, and then, after graduating from medical school at age 35, as an obstetrician in his hometown of Muskogee. He estimated that he delivered more than 4,000 babies. He kept doing it, on weekends home, after he was elected to the House of Representatives and later the Senate.
Both houses of our national legislature are overrun by a certain human type: men and women whose careers began in the second grade with their first campaign for hall monitor and who have stayed the course ever since, not counting the occasional detour to law school. Not Coburn. “In any election,” he said, “you should vote for the candidate who will give up the most if they win.” Better, he meant, to send to Congress people whose work had given them some success in the tug and tussle of ordinary commercial life and who were willing to make a sacrifice in comfort and convenience. The ideal public servant would see a tour in the Washington sausage factory as a demotion.
Such an officeholder is less likely to serve parochial interests—and thereby, endless reelection—at the expense of the national interest. The conflict could be most clearly seen in his exfoliation of budget “earmarks,” a word and a practice that Coburn did more than anyone to make notorious. Earmarks, often inserted surreptitiously into unrelated bills, directed government money to pet projects that were otherwise unlikely to receive majority support.
The sneakiness of earmarks, their lack of accountability and transparency, was enough to make them objectionable. But in federal budgets where a little less than 25 percent of expenditures had already had to be borrowed—red ink by the barrel—the practice was a symptom of ill-discipline unbecoming a self-governing people. The classic of the genre was the “bridge to nowhere,” a pork-barrel project connecting one sparsely inhabited spit of Alaska to another, at a cost of $223 million.* The bridge, a simple line item in a large appropriations bill, was one of Coburn’s great discoveries. He and his staff had a rare gift for sifting through the agate type of budget documents without losing their eyesight or their minds. The shaming worked, the funding was removed—and then restored several years later. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Read: The great earmark ban wars
Coburn redoubled his unpopularity with colleagues by becoming a master of legislative procedure. As a member of the House, he managed to grind the chamber to a halt by threatening to file 130 separate amendments to an agriculture bill, effectively inventing a one-man filibuster in a legislative body that forbids filibusters. (He said the bill was a sop to wealthy farmers and agribusiness.) After he was elected to the Senate, he kept a copy of Riddick’s Senate Procedure, a book of government rules, on his nightstand. Eventually his repeated raids on appropriations bills forced the Senate leadership to declare a moratorium on earmarks, after the Tea Party election of 2010 seemed to validate Coburn’s distaste for deficit spending.