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Culture Q&A

Tom Coburn

Oklahoma know-how

An obstetrician and former senator has ideas for fixing government

Oklahoma know-how

Tom Coburn ( Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Newscom)

As you filed your income tax return, you might have read that total U.S. government revenue (federal, state, and local) this year is about $7 trillion. What do we get for all that money?

Oklahoma obstetrician Tom Coburn, 69, along with delivering 4,000 babies, served six years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 10 years in the U.S. Senate, upholding campaign pledges to serve in the House not more than three terms and in the Senate not more than two. (Coburn left the Senate two years early when cancer recurred—he is now in remission.) Fellow Republicans often applauded his protests against government overspending, and then voted to spend more. Democrats called him “Dr. No.”

Coburn is also a member of South Tulsa Baptist Church. Here are edited excerpts from a February interview at his home.

A lot of people these days are blasting “the media.”

We have a real problem with media. Both the right and the left. They jack people up, create a fight so there’s a story. If you turn on MSNBC, you’ll see all the hair on fire, and if you turn on Fox, you’ll see a criticism of all the hair on fire. Watch Hannity: He’s a cheerleader for Republicans, but Republicans aren’t right all the time.

What should individual readers and viewers do?

Quit letting people jack you up. Read a conservative paper, read a liberal paper, and decide for yourself. The assumption is we’re going to parrot whatever Fox says and the left is going to parrot whatever MSNBC says. Neither is accurate.

You are a Christ follower and have been a personal friend of President Obama. That combination might confound some people. What’s our charge?

To love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t say don’t love a Democrat. Barack Obama and I agree on very little, but my calling is to love him. I respect him, but we disagree because he’s a socialist in terms of his viewpoint. And, if you get rid of all the political labels and the biases, he’s really a nice man.

Should Barack Obama stay politically involved?

I think it’s inappropriate because it leads to more division in our country. He ought to be quiet for a year and not work behind the scenes. I understand he believes fervently in what he believes, but you’ve got to give presidents time to establish their leadership. President Bush 43 set the tone. He didn’t say much until six or seven years out of office. We’re divided enough. We need reconciliation, with leadership that brings us together, not divides us.

‘Quit letting people jack you up. Read a conservative paper, read a liberal paper, and decide for yourself.’

Have conservative Christians contributed to our problems?

Sure. They need to make sure what they say is accurate, not just reposting stuff.

We’re not hearing a lot about the federal debt. Should we?

Millennials are on the hook for paying back a huge debt while trying to establish a family and own a home. When we get back to historical interest rates, which we will, people will quit loaning us money because our interest costs will be about $1.2 trillion a year. It’s an impossible situation that will eventually come unwound, like a pyramid scheme. That’s what’s going on today with politicians refusing to make hard choices because they might not get reelected.

Reelection becomes everything to them?

We’re sending to Washington people who get their whole identity out of being a political figure. The majority of government people in Washington are people who are ego-needy, who love to get stroked.

You’ve talked about Social Security.

Half of the people collecting Social Security disability are not truly disabled. The Social Security administration moved them into the disability program because that’s another safety net. Consequently, Social Security disability is out of money and borrowing from the Social Security system, which will go bankrupt much sooner than it would have.

We need more oversight?

Congress ought to ask about laws passed: Do they work? Are they cost-efficient? There are 68 job-training programs, $18 billion a year. People have gamed the federal government by creating a job-training industry.

So you think we’re in big trouble.

How do we cheat history and not go down the same road every other republic known to man has gone down? We’re well down that road now.

How do we put the genie back in the bottle?

That’s where a convention of states comes in. A balanced budget amendment won’t fix our country. We need to limit the scope and jurisdiction of the federal government. The founders believed more in the state legislatures than they did the federal government, so they had state legislatures electing senators. When we passed the 17th amendment so senators are elected rather than controlled by their state legislatures, states lost power over Congress.

Should that be undone?

Absolutely. Also, when the Senate first started and until the 20th century, filibusters meant you had to have agreement to move forward on anything—which means you forced compromise among disparate views. The founders did that so we wouldn’t have factionalization. Today, the hard-left/press faction wants government to be in control and provide everything for everybody. It and the conservative faction are at loggerheads, because you no longer have forced compromise in Washington and the U.S. Senate.

Is the movement to get rid of the Electoral College significant?

That movement says: Majority rules! This country has stayed together because of the Electoral College.

We have a higher percentage of our population in prison than the Chinese, the Russians, and others have. How do we reduce that number?

Don’t have stupid incarcerations. We know drug rehab works 70 percent of the time, so we have a lot of drug courts in Oklahoma. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have enough places to imprison lots of drug users.

How do we reduce the number of abortions?

You’re not going to do it through the law. You have to change hearts so they value life, and innocent life more than convenience. The best privilege I had was delivering “oopses.” I delivered the “oops” of one lady who was 53: Her kids were in their 20s, she had a new baby, and it was the best thing that had ever happened in her life. Lots of women came to me with complications from their sterilization: They got pregnant. I never found one who didn’t say this was the best thing that ever happened.

Do you still deliver babies?

No, I quit 16 or 18 months ago. The Affordable Care Act got me out of it.

But it was a satisfying line of work?

It was the greatest privilege I ever had in my life. Far better than serving in the Senate. To be trusted with physical, emotional, and spiritual care, to be a mentor to people. The greatest thing in the world is to watch a dad’s eyes as his child is born, to watch those tears that well up in this big ole brute when he sees his child. It’s a privilege to be able to experience that.