Oklahoma Senator Tugs at Beloved 'Earmarks'

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is challenging the congressional practice of "earmarks" — discretionary spending that politicians often direct at pet projects in their own districts. Sen. Coburn says earmark spending is wasteful, and he has taken on many of the spending proposals, with mixed success.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining me now is a bulldog in the effort to do away with these earmarks, Senator Tom Coburn is a Republican from Oklahoma. Welcome.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Hey, it's great to be with you.

SIEGEL: You've gone against a long tradition of adding these pet projects, and the tradition seems to be winning. Do I have that right?

Senator COBURN: Well I think it's starting lose, actually. If you look at the number of votes that we got earlier last year and then what we're getting now, and it's going to change. It has to change because we can't spend the way we're spending, and earmarks are the gateway drug to overspending. And if you'll get rid of earmarks, you're going to start seeing a fiscally more conservative Senate. They're not going to vote for bills that they don't necessarily agree with, because they've got an earmark in it.

SIEGEL: But what's the argument though against, say, earmarking aid for New Orleans to prepare for the hurricane season, or help Hawaii handle the torrential rains there?

Senator COBURN: Well, a couple things. Number one, it hadn't been through any authorization process where you take a group of your peers and actually study the issue to decide whether or not there are adequate resources to handle it. It doesn't require new resources. Number two, it takes it out of the process of one individual who may or may not be doing what is in the best interest of the country as a whole, or for their state as a whole. The other reason that it's important is that you can see a direct correlation with campaign contributions to earmarks. So there's almost a prostitution of the election process through earmarks, as a gateway drug to both overspending but also raising money for campaigns. And we're not here to raise money for campaigns. We're here to make the tough, hard, long-term decisions that's going to secure the future for the country.

SIEGEL: But aren't there some things that are indeed, natural disasters, say, that happen and that logically require emergency spending which might require going outside the theoretical process for how to spend?

Senator COBURN: Well certainly, and that's what a true emergency bill is for. But like I did the contrast in the debate on the last amendment I offered, and finally withdrew, was $11 million for canal work in California. Well we earmarkedover 10 million collars for new museums, or museum add-ons in California. Last year, had we just used that money we could have fixed the canals. But we chose to do both, now, and both of them are going to be charged to our grandchildren.

SIEGEL: Should we simply infer from this that the people who run the Senate, the leadership, has been leading it terribly over the past several years?

Senator COBURN: No, I don't think so, because I had most of the leadership votes on my side on most of my amendments. What you have is an imbalance of power of the Appropriations Committee versus the rest of the Senate.

SIEGEL: Let's look ahead to conference committee for a moment.

Senator COBURN: Okay.

SIEGEL: Do you have a chance to get some of these earmarks out of the bill, when it goes to conference with the House?

Senator COBURN: Oh, I think so. I think the fact that the President has threatened to veto this bill if it comes out. They may not all come out. Something else may get trained. His number is $94.5 billion. There's 35 Senators said they'll vote to uphold his veto. So I think that's pretty good leverage. The House has communicated they're not going above the $94.5. Their leadership has done that, so has their appropriation leadership. So I think it's going to be a tough conference, but at the same time I expect if it comes out above that, that the president will veto it.

SIEGEL: Does that tell you that if the president had used the threat of veto earlier in his presidency, there might not have been so many earmarks over the past several years?

Senator COBURN: Well, I don't know that we've known that. I think we'll know that after this. If he effectively vetoes this, this puts him back in the horse, or on the, in the saddle as far as having some power to control some of the spending, which is something we need.

SIEGEL: It'll be his first veto.

Senator COBURN: That's right. And I think that you're going to see a sea change coming from the administration, simply because we're on an unsustainable financial course. The American people have to understand how big the problems are financially, and they're going to have to be asked to sacrifice to solve them. Which means a lot of people are going to have to make tough decisions. And they may not come back here because they do what's right. And that's the way our process and our republic works, and that's great.

SIEGEL: Do tough decisions, in your mind, mean both cutting spending that people might like to see spent on them, and also raising taxes that they might want to pay?

Senator COBURN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Might not want to pay.

Senator COBURN: We know we have at least $200 billion worth of waste right now, in the discretionary programs. If it comes down, when we've gotten rid of the waste, we're going to have to raise taxes as a possibility. But we should not say that's our first thing when we refuse to do the hard work of getting rid of the waste, fraud and abuse.

SIEGEL: Senator Coburn, thanks so much for talking with us.

Senator COBURN: Hey, I'm glad to visit with you.

SIEGEL: Senator Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.

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