What Made Dr. Coburn Great
Dr. Tom Coburn died last week at his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after a long battle with prostate cancer. Coburn served three terms in the House of Representatives and spent over a decade in the Senate before retiring in 2015. In the days since he passed, his supporters have eulogized Coburn as a stalwart opponent of pork-barrel spending and government corruption. But Coburn was much more than an opposition figure. His importance in American political history extends beyond the role he played in debates over public policy.
Known to many as “Dr. No,” Coburn was also a first-class institutionalist. He had a deep appreciation of the who, what, when, where, and why of lawmaking. Coburn considered Congress to be a physical place where he and his colleagues participated in the act of self-government on behalf of the people they represented. To him, the House and Senate were, first and foremost, concrete institutions where legislators went to achieve their goals, where they gathered to legislate.
Coburn recognized the men and women with whom he served in the House and Senate to be unique individuals, not mindless partisans who were interchangeable. That is, he accepted that they were not the same in any respect and that they each possessed their own abilities, characteristics, interests, hopes, and fears.
Acknowledging Congress’s inherent plurality enabled Coburn to appreciate how the rules and practices constituted a source of leverage that he could use to achieve his goals in the institution. Put simply, Coburn did not see the rules as a constraint on his behavior. He followed them because he derived benefits from doing so.
Coburn understood that pre-committing to follow the rules created possibilities that did not exist before. And his aggressive use of those rules to achieve his goals in specific legislative debates underscored his underlying appreciation of the fact that they made it possible for his colleagues to form expectations about what he would do in the future. In that way, the rules gave Coburn leverage to extract concessions from his colleagues in legislative debates in the present. In sum, the rules made it easier for the participants in those debates to accept suboptimal outcomes (i.e., to compromise).
Unlike most of his colleagues, Coburn accepted the fact that conflict is a necessary precondition for compromise. He understood that the activity of unique individuals inside the House and Senate inevitably generates conflict in the arenas where they persuade, bargain, and negotiate. As such, he accepted that conflict is an inescapable part of the process by which legislators come together based on equality to resolve their differences and compromise.
Underpinning Coburn’s incredible work ethic was his realization that the essence of politics is action and that legislative politics constitutes a particular kind of action, or practice, that unfolds across time. Coburn understood that legislative outcomes were the result of the interactions of legislators in the House and Senate as they acted and reacted to one another in a never-ending process. Influencing those outcomes requires legislators to expend effort on behalf of their constituents.
Congress’s present state is evidence that it needs more institutionalists among its members. The House and Senate need more people like Tom Coburn. The Senate especially needs senators who appreciate, like Coburn appreciated, that legislative outcomes cannot be predicted in advance because legislators can always act in unpredictable ways to achieve their goals in legislative debates. The absence of that action, more than any other factor, is the source of the Senate’s pervasive dysfunction.