â€œBoth parties have equally participated in abandoning the limited role of the federal government,â€ says Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Coburnâ€™s new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting Our Economy (Thomas Nelson), argues that Republicans and Democrats together have brought the U.S. to the brink of fiscal calamity.
First elected to the house in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution, Coburn is a strong fiscal conservative who doesnâ€™t hesitate to publicly criticize members of his own party (including Revolution leader Newt Gingrich) for compromising their principles out of political expedience. Known in the Senate as â€œDr. Noâ€ for opposing almost all new spending initiatives, Coburn says the federal budget is rife with â€œwaste, fraud, and duplication.â€ In 2006, he co-sponsored legislation that created USASpending.gov, which makes publicly accessible a list of all recipients of government funds. In 2010, he was instrumental in getting the Government Accountability Office to begin researching and documenting wasteful government programs.
Coburn is a staunch social conservative as well. A supporter of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he was a co-author of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, and he supported a 1996 law requiring that â€œV-chipsâ€ be placed in all television sets to allow parents to block programming deemed unsuitable. In 1997, he criticized NBC for airing the Holocaust film Schindlerâ€™s List on the grounds that it included â€œvile language, full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity.â€ NBC characterized Coburnâ€™s views as â€œfrightening.â€
reason.com Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Coburn in July to discuss wasteful spending, entitlement reform, the need for free market health care, and whether heâ€™s losing faith in the governmentâ€™s ability to enforce values. Watch a video version of the interview online at Reason TV.
reason: Letâ€™s get right to it: When is the fiscal time bomb going to go off?
Tom Coburn: Itâ€™s anywhere from two to five years from now, depending on what happens in Europe and what happens in the world economy. But there will be a point in time where people lose confidence in our ability to repay our debts.
reason: But so far bond rates are low, which would signal that people lending us money are OK with us running trillions and trillions of dollars in debt.
Coburn: Bond interest rates are low and thatâ€™s normal when you have a debt de-leveraging. If you read long-term economic history, youâ€™ll see that this is not uncommon.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: So looking at low interest rates is missing the larger point?
Coburn: Itâ€™s missing two important points. One is that weâ€™re the best-looking horse in the glue factory. The second point is that just because we have low interest rates doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™ll always be low. When youâ€™ve printed $3.6 trillion worth of moneyâ€"right now itâ€™s printed but itâ€™s not in the economy, itâ€™s sitting on bank assets listings and the Federal Reserve asset listingsâ€"what happens is when that money starts moving, when the velocity of that money starts moving, youâ€™re going to see 15, 18 percent inflation.
So the debt bomb is two things: short-term is deflationary, long-term is highly inflationary. And that has a real meaning to anybody thatâ€™s living in our country. If youâ€™re my age or less, and you have socked away something for your retirement, the purchasing value of that goes away.
reason: Letâ€™s talk a little bit about how we got here. Since about 1950, the federal government on average has pulled in about 18 percent of GDP as revenue. But itâ€™s been spending closer to 20 percent.
Coburn: 21 percent.
reason: What was the role of the Republican Party under George Bush and with a Republican Congress in pulling apart expenditures from revenue?
Coburn: Both parties have equally participated in abandoning the limited role of the federal government. You lay on top of that the careerism of politicians who want to do things so they can get reelected and what you have is a catalyst, which makes that even go faster.
Our problems today are two-fold: We spent money we didnâ€™t have on things we donâ€™t absolutely need, which refers back to the enumerated powers listed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.
reason: Talk a little bit about that.
Coburn: Well, weâ€™ve spent $2 trillion on education at the federal level, with no improvement. Thereâ€™s no parameter you can find where weâ€™re better off. Job training programs, we spent $18 billion to almost $19 billion a year. [The Government Accountability Office] says they all of them do exactly the same thing except three. Why do we have 90-some teacher training programs? Where in the world do we get the authority to have teacher training programs run by the federal government? We spend several billion dollars a year on those. And you can just go through the list.
reason: Do you think when people see these long lists of programs and how much weâ€™re spending on them and how generally useless or even unknown they are, are people going to respond â€œWe gotta get rid of theseâ€ or are they going to say â€œI gotta get in on that gravy trainâ€?
Coburn: I believe the vast majority of Americans have common sense. Itâ€™s only Washington that doesnâ€™t have common sense. The reason things donâ€™t change is that you keep sending the same people here. And the same people are good people but theyâ€™re politicians.
reason: Do you think legally prescribed term limits are a way to go for that?
Coburn: No, I think the way to do it is for individuals to say, â€œI will not vote for you unless you put a certified statement out saying â€˜Iâ€™m limiting my term.â€™?â€
reason: You showed up in D.C. as part of the Republican Revolution in 1994, but you term-limited yourself out of the House of Representatives in 2000. You came back as a senator and youâ€™ve term-limited yourself again.
Coburn: Yes, and Iâ€™ll be gone in four years, thank goodness.
reason: A Republican budget passed by the House projects that in 10 years weâ€™ll take spending from about $3.8 trillion to $4.9 trillion. The Democratic budget, or at least Barack Obamaâ€™s, would take that to about $5.9 trillion. Do you feel like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are really addressing serious questions?
Coburn: I think thereâ€™s a political calculation for all of them. I was dead serious when I said we can take $9 trillion out over the next 10 years.
reason: Now youâ€™ve taken a huge amount of heat from the right side of the political spectrum for putting revenue increases on the table in terms of discussing how we fix the debt problem.
Coburn: I donâ€™t have any problem taking on this issue. Our historical average in terms of revenues has been around 18 percent. Doesnâ€™t matter what the tax rate is, youâ€™re not going to get much higher than that, maybe 19, 19.1. If you have a 70 percent tax rate or a 20 percent tax rate, youâ€™re not going get it because people are going to avoid taxes. Theyâ€™re not going to evade them, theyâ€™re going to avoid them.
If you really think, given this countryâ€™s make-up today, that you can get 60 Tom Coburns in the Senate to where you can actually cut the spending enough and reform the entitlements where you wouldnâ€™t have to have it and you could get the government down to 15 percent of GDP, Iâ€™m all for it. But if thatâ€™s the case, I have a whole bunch of spoiled land in Oklahoma Iâ€™d like to sell you for $10,000 an acre. Because thereâ€™s no truth to that.
The fact is, our Founders made this country where if youâ€™re going to change something, you have to do it based on compromise. And weâ€™re going to have to increase revenue. That doesnâ€™t mean increased tax rates. Actually, the increased revenues will come from the dynamic effect of lowering the rates and broadening the base and getting some of the $2.6 trillion thatâ€™s sitting on the sidelines right now in businesses, invest it, and that will create jobs.
reason: Entitlements are where the big money is, right?
Coburn: A lot of people say that, you know, a trillion dollars a year in discretionary spending is big money, especially when 30 to 35 percent of it is waste, fraud, or duplication. If itâ€™s 35 percent, thatâ€™s $350 billion a year, thatâ€™s $3.5 trillion. If you truly ran the government efficientlyâ€"and thatâ€™s not talking about things that are done outside of the purview of the enumerated powersâ€"if you did that, youâ€™d cut another $150 billion, and thatâ€™s $5 trillion over 10 years. Then if you fix entitlements.â€¦
reason: Youâ€™re talking about changing eligibility ages and things like that. But how do we fix Medicare? Medicare is something that gives essentially free or reduced price health care to seniors irrespective largely of income. Is that something we should be doing?
Coburn: The question is, is it constitutional? I would have to say itâ€™s outside of the enumerated powers. So is Medicaid. Social Security, if you wanted to create a system where the Social Security actually was set up independent and people could put their funds into it, and they could do it, thatâ€™s all constitutional. You can do that. But the point is that if they were all self-financing, we wouldnâ€™t have any of the problems with it.
reason: So whatâ€™s your best fix for Medicare?
Coburn: You canâ€™t fix Medicare unless you fix health care. And the best fix is to let free-market forces work on health care. What Sen. Richard Burr [R-N.C.] and I have proposed is the Seniors Choice Act, where you have a premium support system, and you connect purchase with payment and allow individuals to be involved. There are great corollaries in the private sector. And even our private sector doesnâ€™t have real market forces.
reason: How do we get to that market-based system? I know that you agree that markets have delivered great increases in productivity and service and treatments in every aspect of our lives. They can do it in medicine, youâ€™re a doctor, you recognize that. But how do we get there? Because the resistance is humongous, it seems, toward moving to a system where the patient is actually in charge of spending money.
Coburn: How you get there is to contrast whatâ€™s going to happen if you donâ€™t change. And the question you ask a senior thatâ€™s on Medicare today is, do you want Medicare not to change knowing that your children and your grandchildren will have a markedly lower standard of living if we donâ€™t change it? Thatâ€™s how you get there.
You have to have transparency in outcomes and quality in medicine, which we donâ€™t. Unless youâ€™re a doctor. I mean, I often ask the question, why do only the doctors know the bad doctors? Why isnâ€™t there a transparent market in terms of quality and service? If you want to get a complicated operation, do you really want to go to somebody who does it twice a year or 200 times a year? Which place do you go?
reason: If I created a system to rate doctors publicly, like Rate My Professor for doctors, would that be allowed?
Coburn: Sure it would. You have consumer reports out there right now. You could have consumer reports on health care. Hereâ€™s the problem in health care: People in health care donâ€™t want transparency because we have a system that pays based on the more you do, the more you earn, rather than the quality of outcome and prevention. Market forces arenâ€™t perfect. But I guarantee theyâ€™re better than what weâ€™re doing right now. And when you have a Medicaid system where the outcomes are worse than if you have no insurance at all.â€¦
reason: Which is stunning. Medicaid is not just an inefficient program, itâ€™s actually a disastrous program.
Coburn: Itâ€™s a low quality program that says you have access when really you have no access or you have access to inferior quality. So thereâ€™s ways to fix all that.
reason: In the book, you talk about turning Medicaid into block grants that go back to the states.
Coburn: Sure, let the states figure it out.
reason: And you donâ€™t have a problem with the social welfare net thatâ€™s supplied by the government?
Coburn: No, look, I also mention in the book another book by a guy by the name of Marvin Olasky called The Tragedy of American Compassion. What we have done through the federal government is enhance dependency. Weâ€™ve taught learned dependency versus earned success. And if in fact weâ€™d use the principles outlined by Marvin Olasky in our safety net programs, what we would see is much lower costs and much better outcomes. One of the things weâ€™re doing with our social safety net is keeping people down. Weâ€™re actually harming them.
reason: To go back to Medicare and Social Security, should we get rid of them? Not all seniors need them, so wouldnâ€™t it make more sense to transform old-age entitlements into an income-tested safety net?
Coburn: There may be a point in time where we can accomplish that, but the fact is we have a very large number of Americans, in excess of 50 million, that have planned their future based on that system. There has been a contract made with seniors. And you canâ€™t abandon that contract. But you can make that contract much more efficient and much more effective so the future of our kids is not.â€¦
reason: Do you find that thatâ€™s actually a persuasive line of argument?
reason: Because itâ€™s geezers who are getting a lot out of things now. And they might have the power, right?
Coburn: Well, being a grandfather myself, I actually can relate to them. They would like to keep Medicare just how it is. But if you keep making the question: If you change Medicare, I will actually do something for my grandkids? Itâ€™s kind of like when you ask a very wealthy individual, â€œWill you pay more taxes?â€ And they say â€œAbsolutely, but I donâ€™t want it to be spent. I want it to pay down the debt.â€ Itâ€™s exactly the same thing. Seniors donâ€™t mind making a sacrifice. Remember, this country has done hard things. Most of the seniors were involved in doing those hard things. Theyâ€™re willing to do hard things again, but they want to know itâ€™s done for a noble cause.
reason: Youâ€™ve taken a lot of heatâ€"again from the right side of the political spectrumâ€"when you started to criticize defense spending. What do we need to do to right-size defense spending?
Coburn: Well, first of all, we have to figure out how we buy things. We want advanced weaponry and major weapon programs. Those are important things for us, [but so is] how we buy them. There are no adults in the room. What Eisenhower said about the military-industrial complex is true.
reason: In 2010, you called for a freeze on defense spending. And in 2008 you said that it was a mistake that we went into Iraq. There are two issues with military spending. One is how we get what we buy and how we go about buying it. And then thereâ€™s what we want the military to do. How are those two issues related?
Coburn: If you look at history, you have the military mind based on what your economic mind is. Our economic mind is at risk. So it doesnâ€™t matter what our philosophical position is; weâ€™re not going to be able to fund it.
reason: How do we know if Iraq or Afghanistan were mistakes?
Coburn: I donâ€™t think I can judge that. I think weâ€™re going to judge that after weâ€™ve left. And youâ€™re going across two administrations with different policies and different viewpoints. I think ultimately what youâ€™re going to see is that the power of ideas is more powerful than the power of weapons. And what our America led the world in and can lead again in is the power of ideas. People are aspirational toward our values, our rule of law, our freedom, our liberty, our limited government. And weâ€™re clouding that picture sometimes by what we do. My foreign policy is limited in its expertise, but I actually believe the Constitution. I actually donâ€™t believe we ought to get involved in things unless we have a direct national security issue.
reason: So what about Syria right now. Should we stand on the sidelines?
Coburn: Well, if we want to help arm people so they can fight for themselves, I have no problem with that. We should not be directly involved in Syria.
reason: Do you feel that this is something that conservatives are coming around to?
Coburn: I really donâ€™t know the answer to it. People have all sorts of views. What we do is learn from mistakes and we ought to not close our eyes and ears to that. And I think thereâ€™s lots to be learned over the last 10 years.
Weâ€™re spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on homeland security. Can anyone guarantee us that weâ€™re not going to be attacked again? No. Can we lessen that to a significant degree? Yes. For each additional dollar we put in, what do we get in return? Youâ€™ve never heard a president having that conversation with the American people. There are risks out there. We can do so much. But if we spend additional dollars here, we made the de minimus reduction in risk versus if we spent the same amount of money trying to cure breast cancer, weâ€™d get a whole lot more.
reason: You were one of the authors of the partial birth abortion ban act. And you cited the Commerce Clause as the justification for that. So how does the Commerce Clause apply in that case?
Coburn: The same way it might apply to an Equal Rights Amendment or a civil rights amendment. Go back to our Founding documents: â€œWeâ€™re endowed by our Creator,â€ â€œpursuit of life,â€ â€œpursuit of happiness.â€ You cannot pursue life if weâ€™ve said we can take your life at our whim. It really is more a fundamental issue than the Commerce Clause.
reason: You talked with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan about this during her confirmation hearings. But you come from a natural rights tradition. You would be against abortion in all circumstances?
Coburn: Except to save the life of a mother.
reason: Over your political career, youâ€™ve been a staunch social conservative as well as a fiscal conservative. When you were a congressman, you supported â€œV-chipâ€ legislation, which was mandatory hardware in TV so that parents could block certain shows.
Coburn: But thereâ€™s a difference there. Parents didnâ€™t have to block, it gave them the opportunity to block.
reason: OK. But itâ€™s still a mandate on TV producers.
Coburn: Thatâ€™s right. Just like we have a mandate that you have safety cord on a coffee pot. So that youâ€™re not electrocuted when the coffee spills over.
reason: OK, that seems a lot different than saying that Bugs Bunny.â€¦
Coburn: Itâ€™s the same thing. The point is you create an opportunity for you to be safe.
reason: Youâ€™re against abortion, youâ€™re against certain types of public displays. You had a fairly controversial take on the airing of Schindlerâ€™s List when you were a congressman. In the Senate race in 2004, comments of yours made about lesbianism in public schools in Oklahoma caused a controversy.
Yet in the book, one of the things I found genuinely interesting is that youâ€™re not walking away from any of your positions, but it seems like your attitude toward the governmentâ€™s role in enforcing values is shifting. At one point you write, â€œLaws are pretty important, but theyâ€™re not the most important thing.â€ And thatâ€™s in a section where youâ€™re talking about what the religious right needs to learn. Do you feel on a certain level that government is not the best instrument for pushing particular values throughout the society?
Coburn: It obviously isnâ€™t, because it hasnâ€™t done a very good job. I would answer yes. The problem comes is, what were the values that the country was based on? Whether you read The Federalist Papers or you read about our Founding Fathers, this country wonâ€™t last if itâ€™s not seen as a moral country, as a good country. And one of the things that gives us value is that we put value into principles and character. And the character of the country, as you rationalize away standards of decency and standards of behavior, regardless of your libertarian viewpoint or not, the fact is those have consequences. And those consequences will impact the country. And the questions is, will it impact it positively or negative? The main answer to your question is, do you live a life that models the behavior that you think best represents what our Founders believed in?
reason: You talk about how the fiscal crisis is a moral crisis. And in this sense, itâ€™s because people are not holding themselves accountable any more than theyâ€™re holding their beliefs accountable.
Coburn: Thatâ€™s right. What weâ€™ve done is undermined individual responsibility and self-reliance in this country. We didnâ€™t mean to. But we have. And if you look at Rome, if you look at Greece, if you look at every other republic in history, they died the same way. This isnâ€™t rocket science. Go look at what happened to them.
Iâ€™m not for undermining any more of our cultural values. I donâ€™t have to be right, but I do have the right to stand for what I believe is right. So, and Iâ€™m willing to speak on these issues. You can carry the libertarian thought all the way down to nil, that you have no responsibility to pay any taxes. How do you have a societal form where you donâ€™t participate? Itâ€™s great to think about but it doesnâ€™t solve any of our real problems today. And our problems today are real. Theyâ€™re coming soon. The effects of them are going to be disastrous on a large quantity of Americans. We ought to be solving them now rather than putting them off and waiting for an election to happen.