The Obstinate Obstetrician

Sen. Tom Coburn resists the tyranny of good intentions


Frustrated by Tom Coburn's "unprecedented obstructionism," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cobbled together a "Tomnibus" of 35 bills with "broad—virtually unanimous—bipartisan support" that Coburn had blocked. On Monday the Oklahoma Republican blocked them again.

Unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome Coburn's opposition, Reid castigated the Republicans who had sided with the obstreperous obstetrician. "You go home and explain to…the next person you see in a wheelchair, 'I voted against you because Harry Reid was being a tyrannical guy in the Senate,'" the Nevada Democrat said. He also accused the Republicans of voting against victims of stroke, Lou Gehrig's disease, postpartum depression, and child pornography.

"I have never been a bully," Reid insisted while caricaturing his opponents as cripple kickers, mother haters, and molester lovers. Perhaps he really believes that, just as he really believes he is anything but "a tyrannical guy." Spending other people's money on good causes makes you automatically virtuous, which is part of its appeal. If nothing else, Coburn has shown it is possible to resist the tyranny of good intentions.

"Mr. Coburn's approach is problematic when it comes to the mechanics of the Senate," The New York Times explains, "because most of the chamber's work gets done by what is known as unanimous consent, an agreement among all parties to let a bill pass without a fight." In other words, Coburn has the bad manners to demand that the "world's greatest deliberative body" deliberate.

It's not hard to see why Reid wants to avoid that. Although he dubbed his spending package the Advancing America's Priorities Act, the one thing it emphatically does not do is set priorities.

Is postpartum depression a bad thing? Sure it is. Then let's pass a law that "aims to eradicate the devastating effects of postpartum depression on American families." And let's call it the MOTHERS Act, even though MOTHERS is not, strictly speaking, the correct acronym for Mom's Opportunity to Access Health, Education, Research, and Support for Postpartum Depression.

Are flowers nice? Of course they are. So let's pay for a new greenhouse at the Smithsonian to house its orchid collection.

Are museums edifying? You bet. So let's sponsor a traveling exhibit commemorating the War of 1812 and "The Star Spangled Banner." While we're at it, let's make a donation to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Speaking of edification and other countries, why not create a foundation to encourage study abroad?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, Reid's wish list will cost about $10 billion over five years, at a time when the federal budget deficit has ballooned to a record $490 billion. Yet Reid marvels that "the rogue far right…has perfected the art of stopping good bills that help good people." Good bills that help good people: Could there possibly be a better governing philosophy?

I myself am partial to the notion, promoted by such rogue right-wingers as James Madison, that the federal government may exercise only those powers explicitly enumerated in the Constitution, which do not include subsidizing medical research, museums, or foreign travel for college students. As Madison pointed out, if Article I's General Welfare Clause is interpreted as blanket permission to spend money on good things, much of the rest of the Constitution is superfluous.

Coburn, known as the Dr. No of the Senate, does not go that far. Unlike Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the Dr. No of the House, Coburn generally does not oppose spending on constitutional grounds. But he does ask his colleagues to pay for new programs by cutting old ones instead of spending money they do not have. In a letter to Reid, he identified $45 billion in cuts that could be used to offset the cost of Advancing America's Priorities.

Reid did not respond. When you're spending other people's money, especially when you're borrowing against the earnings of people who are not yet born, there's no need to set priorities.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.