Ethics Hero: Sen.Tom Coburn

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has become the main villain in the battle over the  9/11 First Responders Bill, which will grant over 7 billion dollars in health care assistance to those who have become ill as a result of their heroic work in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings. He is leading Republican opposition to the bill, on the grounds that it still needs to be paid for despite its worthy purpose and its undeniably deserving beneficiaries.

Coburn is one of the most dedicated deficit hawks in the Senate, which means that he realizes that the federal deficit will never be brought under control if feckless House members and Senators can always be shamed and bullied into spending money the government doesn’t have, or into rejecting necessary cuts, through the use of one or more predictable refrains:

  • This expenditure is special.
  • These are really deserving people.
  • Refusing to spend this money is heartless!
  • Spending this money is the right thing to do.
  • This is an excellent program.
  • Cutting this won’t do much to reduce the deficit.
  • How can we justify not doing this when we spend money on that?
  • We gave tax cuts to the rich; we can’t deny these benefits now.

If the United States is going to avert eventual fiscal catastrophe, discretionary spending will have to be reduced in opposition to every one of these arguments, which must be subordinated, every one of them, to “we can’t afford it.” There is very little evidence that many, or enough, of our elected officials will have the courage to resist these seductive arguments for making just one more unfunded expenditure, avoiding just this one proposed cut, or adding just a few more billion to our debt.

We may disagree with Coburn’s opposition to the First Responders Bill, but we should value, respect, and be grateful for his brand of integrity, responsibility and courage. We’re going to need a lot more of it, and soon.

_______________

UPDATE: (12/22/10) Dr. Coburn agreed not to block the bill after sponsors knocked about 2.5 billion dollars off its cost, and it was passed. That’s 2.5 billion less added to the deficit, in part thanks to a Senator who had the courage to be called “heartless” and worse. Now all we need is for other Senators to do the same thing a few million times, and our deficit worries will be a thing of the past!

30 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Sen.Tom Coburn

  1. Oh? How is it paid for? What’s being cut eslewhere, or what revenue is being added? Last version I read, it was not being paid for any more than the unemployment extensions. “borrowing more money” isn’t paying for it.

    By the way, I won my bet with myself that you’d be the first one to comment!

    • Thanks. I’d agree personally that this bill qualifies as “a special case,” but I also agree with the proposition that adding a new tax on business is not exactly the kind of “paying for it” that is needed. Coburn’s position is responsible.

      • The key was it was not paid for. Now that you find out it is paid for, it’s not the right paid for. Bad Jack. That the definition of partisan.

        Also, how many bills has Coburn voted for that were not paid for? Military spending anyone? Does he get attacked for violating his ethics there?

        • a) Read Tom Fuller’s explanation below. It’s not really paid for.
          b) I did not, in the original post, emphasize the goal of “paying for” discretionary spending, but of reducing the deficit. I di quote Coburn’s official explanation, which was summarized in press accounts as “paying for the expenditure.”

          Note that your military rationalizaion is the 7th one on my list: “How can we justify not doing this when we spend money on that?” The duty of a government to afford sufficient national defense is a core government function—it is not, therefore, “discretionary expenditures,” except to delusional pacifists who think we can just lay down our weapons and live in Namby-Pamby Land in peace and harmony. The disagreement over military spending is over what is necessary for protection of the country, not whether defense spending is an essential budget item. There is no inconsistency in voting to fund the military and not voting to fund health care for specific individuals after the fact.

          • a) Yes, your key is deficit reduction, so a deficit neutral should have been fine with you. Paying for it is deficit neutral. That you didn’t like the way it was deficit neutral was partisan.

            More importantly, you’re commenting on Coburn’s ethics. “We can’t afford it” is idiotic if the cost is offset. A violation of ethics.

            Your comment came before the further information was proffered, so it plays no role in what you had said. You can’t use it to justify your bad behavior.

            b) I wasn’t rationalizing. It was a note that his ethics only exist on so called democratic initiatives. Completely valid. Thanks for strawmanning me again though.

            • Huh? How does deficit neutral reduce anything? Especially if, as in this case, it isn’t really deficit neutral?

              As I think I’ve said many times already…I perosannldon’t have any problem with passing this benefit for the responders. But the fiscally responsible it isn’t. Coburn deserved kudos for having the guts to oppose it on that basis alone. He obviously has nothing against responders, just insolvency.

              • Huh? How does deficit neutral reduce anything? Especially if, as in this case, it isn’t really deficit neutral? I didn’t say anything about reducing the deficit. Are you saying that Tom Coburn can only pass bills that reduce the deficit?

                As I think I’ve said many times already…I perosannldon’t have any problem with passing this benefit for the responders. But the fiscally responsible it isn’t. Coburn deserved kudos for having the guts to oppose it on that basis alone. He obviously has nothing against responders, just insolvency.

                It was a responsible position to oppose a bill that had great benefit, because the way it was offset wasn’t what you thought was politically best. That is an accurate summation of what you said above. That’s what I attacked.

                Again, you can’t modify what your position was based on information you received later.

            • a) “We can’t afford it” is absolutely valid if the cost is “kind of” offset, or even offset entirely. A family that can’t pay the rent can’t afford a big screen TV, even if it sells the dog to pay for it. The dog money should go to paying off debts. This is an unbelievable discussion, but it does explain why the US is broke.

              b) Coburn is, among other things, an anti-earmark fanatic, regarding both GOP and Dem. pork—and he was one of two sitting Republicans who voted for the bi-partisan recommendations of the deficit reduction committee. You’re just misinformed on Coburn. His integrity on this issue is well established.

              • “We can’t afford it” is absolutely valid if the cost is “kind of” offset, or even offset entirely. A family that can’t pay the rent can’t afford a big screen TV, even if it sells the dog to pay for it. The dog money should go to paying off debts. This is an unbelievable discussion, but it does explain why the US is broke.

                Great analogy. That family also shouldn’t buy a fancy new security system. It’s fiscally irresponsible. On the other hand, It’s probably still a good idea to take the kid with the broken leg to the hospital.

                b) Coburn is, among other things, an anti-earmark fanatic, regarding both GOP and Dem. pork—and he was one of two sitting Republicans who voted for the bi-partisan recommendations of the deficit reduction committee. You’re just misinformed on Coburn. His integrity on this issue is well established.

                I just did some quick research, Under Obama, he has been a deficit hawk. Under Bush? Hit and miss. He did vote as a deficit hawk in some cases (he liked to remove funding from random groups of people), as a smart deficit hawk across the aisle (H. Clinton’s attempts to allow the government to negotiate better rates on prescription drugs), and as a big government deficits don’t matter politician (an unfunded 300 billion on transportation projects).

                • It is a great analogy. And they family has a legal obligation to care for the child with the broken leg—it’s not like the responders.

                  The defici is much worse now; Coburn’s added fervor does not have to be explained by partisanship. He has said that going along with may Bush expenditures was a mistake.

                  Transportation infrastructure (and other infrastructure), by the way, is a core government function that has been irresponsibly squeezed out by other, discretionary projects. It is like paying the rent or food—it HAS to be paid. Wait until sewer systems start breaking down, water pipes rupturing daily and bridges collapsing in major cities.

  2. Well, that’s Washington speak. If you close the loophole and don’t spend 7 billion, you’ve saved 7 billion and improved the deficit situation. It’s like a financially strapped household that can’t pay its bills making 200 bucks on a garage sale and spending it on better dishwasher. The money should go in the bank.

    Dr. No indeed. Someone’s got to say it.

  3. The tax is on foreign concerns or U.S. concerns dodging the tax man.
    They SHOULD pay. AND we should pay for the care of theses heroes.

    You do know this is payer of the last resort funding, don’t you?
    It only kicks in after all the third parties have reached their limit.

    BTW: I bet most Americans would pony up some cash to help out.
    AND I bet the terrorrists are ROTFLTAO! They bomb us and we don’t take care of the people who arrive first to help. BUT spend a lot of heat protesting an Islamic center near the WTC site.

    Jack, I am done w/this post. You obviously do not and will never get it.

  4. Gyasi and Shepard Smith and I aren’t admirers. Coburn complained that there weren’t hearings on the bill. There were, but he was absent.

    Nothing admirable about Coburn’s behavior here. I’d nominate him for dunce, not hero.

    • There will be similar arguments in favor of every piece of discretionary spending. Either we have the resolve to reduce the debt, or we don’t. This is a revealing test case, obviously on the high end of the desirability spectrum. But we don’t “owe” financial support to those who undertook a job voluntarily; there is no contractual obligation; it IS discretionary, and it it IS important for us, at this time, never to just created commitments for billions of dollars without being forced to recall that every such decision now pushed us a little closer to a financial meltdown, the avoidance of which is a greater priority than the plight of firefighters and other heroes. If the reflex instincts of you, and Bob, and many others hold sway—and I’m pretty sure they will—, we’ll end up with a nice, compassionate, broke country that won’t be able to help anyone, including ourselves, in the future.

  5. Since the question of what effect this has on the Federal budget seems key to the discussion (I will argue below that it isnt’), it might be interesting to hear about what has actually been happening.

    The bill as originally introduced in the House (H.R. 847) was estimated to cost about $7.7 billion over ten years. Most of this was to be offset (or paid for, or however you want to put it) by enacting a legislative change to the application of income tax treaties. This change has been in the air for a long time, and has always been firmly opposed by Republicans because they believe that it will result in the export of jobs from the U.S. (Views on this differ, and nobody can say for sure.) It has also been proposed to offset dozens of other unrelated tax reductions or tax expenditures, so even if it’s eventually enacted it will be hard to say exactly what it will economically offset in the long run. Like most other such “revenue raisers”, it’s been tossed around so many times that it hardly matters where it ends up if you’re asking “Is tax expenditure X paid for?”

    In any event, it doesn’t matter any more to this discussion. Gyasi should read the papers. The bill has repeatedly failed with this “offset” provision included, so last week Senators Gillbrand (D-NY) and Schumer (D-NY) dropped it and proposed a new “offset”. The new proposal would reduce the ten-year cost of the 9/11 expenditures to $6.4 billion, to be paid for by two extensions of immigration taxes that would otherwise expire in 2015 ($1.8 billion) and a genuinely new excise tax on U.S. government contract procurement payments ($4.6 billion) to contractors in countries not party to the WTO Procurement Agreement (so it doesn’t apply to contractors in virtually all of Europe, as well as those in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Canada).

    The immigration tax part of this is not much more than a statement that maybe we’ll be able to figure out how to come up with this money five years from now. The excise tax part is new, but even if that makes it OK for you from a policy view, its ability to raise $4.6 billion depends on whether its “don’t you dare raise prices in response to this” provisions work, and on how many non-WTO contractors we can get or keep during that time. Currently, the tax would be imposed mostly on contractors contributing to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. If procurements for those purposes decrease, the new excise tax revenue would almost certainly fall well short of the target. If Iraq and Afghanistan costs continue at their present levels for ten more years, the tax might pay for the 9/11 relief, but at that point we’ll be so deeply in war debts that nobody will notice.

    I go into this nauseating detail mostly to show how hard it is for anyone to think that “matching” costs and revenues is either easy or relevant. The national debt will be reduced if we raise taxes, or cut expenses, or both. If we like an expenditure, fine, but lets not get sidetracked by irrelevant quibbles over whether it’s “offset” by something else. The bank that repossesses your house doesn’t really care whether the fridge has been paid for or not.

    If you still need convincing, the entire tax package so recently in the news went into law without being “paid for”, solely because everyone agreed to call every one of its provisions an “emergency measure.”

    This is my business, so I can make at least a modest claim for factual accuracy. And yes, unlike most of our representatives, I HAVE read the bills.

  6. I wish I were more of a history buff. I think it would be interesting to go back to some congressional hearings on taxes years and years ago to see if anyone argued that this kind of future could happen as a way to oppose legislation that was ultimately passed.

    How ethical is it for our government to know of loopholes and refuse to close them so that they can save it for a rainy day when they need to offset something? Shouldn’t our government try to collect everything it is entitled to without finding a purpose for that money?

  7. To paraphrase Michael C—
    Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in…

    @ Tom Fuller—
    I have no idea who you are or what you do.
    It looks like you read the bill because it was your job to do so.
    Kudos! You should be proud, sir…

    As for your “Gyasi should read the papers” comment, please know that I am not Sarah Palin. Not only do I read papers, I can name them and have been in the newspaper business for close to two decades. The Huffington Post is a paper—exclusively online, but a paper none the less. The IB Times appears online, on newsprint and publishes at least one magazine. At the time I posted, it was south of 11pm and I did not have time nor inclination to provide Jack with detailed citations. Furthermore, the details of the bill and how to pay for its cost seemed to be changing hourly.

    If you want to comment, comment on the facts.
    You do not know me. Don’t get personal. Pejorative comments as the one you posted only serve to weaken the tissue paper your argument was built upon.

  8. @ Tom—jokes in posts are followed by LOL.
    You were not joking. You were digging.
    Now, you sound like Haley Barbour.
    SAD, just sad. Walk it back, Tom. Walk it back…

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