Medical Tuesday Blog

Thomas Allen Coburn, MD The doctor and Senator was the model of a citizen legislator. By The Editorial Board | WSJ | March 28, 2020

May 5

Written by: Del Meyer
05/05/2020 11:41 PM 

Politics is a lifetime career for most in American government, and then there are exceptions like Thomas Coburn. The Oklahoma obstetrician who became a Senator and then returned to a productive private life died Saturday of prostate cancer at age 72. He was what America’s Founders imagined in self-governing citizen legislators, and that mentality made him far more consequential than the usual congressional seat-fillers.

Coburn worked in his family’s optical-lens firm before going to medical school and setting up an OB/GYN practice. He ran for the House in 1994 in part to oppose the Clinton effort for government health care, served three terms and retired before running for Senate in 2004 for what he said would be no more than two terms. He continued to see patients on weekends and Mondays in Oklahoma until the Senate declared it a (preposterous) conflict-of-interest.

“I don’t think Washington can fix Washington,” Coburn told our colleague Joe Rago in 2014 after announcing his retirement two years early when his cancer recurred. “You’re always going to have this built-in conflict of getting re-elected. Parochial interests will trump the best interests of the nation, and the actors will do what’s expedient to be popular. It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who could do these jobs well. All it requires is common sense and courage.” (The full interview is nearby.)

Tom Coburn had both of those qualities, which he used to take on important causes that challenged both political parties. He campaigned against parochial spending and waste, but unlike most Senators he did the homework on the details. His investigation of fraud in the Social Security disability program was a model of Congressional oversight.

Coburn challenged his own party on spending earmarks, making famous the “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that led to a broader earmark ban. He took on special-interest tax subsidies and defeated the ethanol tax credit almost by himself. He took a particular interest in health care and offered a roadmap for Republicans for free-market reform to reduce the tax subsidy for employer insurance that is skewed to the affluent; he wanted to use the savings to provide tax credits for lower-income workers whose bosses don’t offer insurance. The Trump Administration could do worse than campaign on a version of it this year.

Many conviction politicians accomplish little because they care more about looking principled than advancing their principles. Coburn was different because while firm in his convictions he was also pragmatic in forming alliances to get things done. American politics would be healthier, and government would be less destructive, if we had more Tom Coburns.

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