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Deficit Panel Feels Coburn’s Influence

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Tom Coburn's "Back in Black" deficit reduction plan is getting attention from outside groups as well as members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

At a time when the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction appears to be shutting out everyone else, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has the ear of one of the panel’s most important Republicans and the attention of groups across Washington, D.C.

Coburn gained cachet as a deficit hawk in working with the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six,” and he has drawn accolades and ire for his openness to tax reform. But what may make him most valuable to those seeking to exert influence on Congress’ most powerful panel is his
614-page, $9 trillion deficit reduction plan, “Back in Black.”

The outline, which the Oklahoma
Republican unveiled in July, has become a primary source of deficit reduction ideas for outside groups and even Republicans on other Congressional panels, including an important oversight subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel.

More importantly, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) — a pivotal member of the super committee — said Coburn’s extensive proposals should be taken up by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

“They can and they should,” Kyl said Tuesday of super committee members considering the “Back in Black” framework, adding that he has talked to Coburn about some of his ideas.

That Coburn is discussing deficit reduction with Kyl, a top ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and a former member of the negotiating group led by Vice President Joseph Biden, could provide a small window into Republican thinking.

Coburn’s plan, which would slash
$9 trillion from the deficit over 10 years, includes everything from discretionary and mandatory spending cuts to fundamental tax code reform.  Kyl would not say specifically whether he was talking about revenue reform with Coburn, but he left the door open to the possibility.

“With regard to what you’re talking about right now, mostly what I talked about is the information that he’s compiled about savings that could be achieved,” Kyl told Roll Call when asked whether his talks were focused on cuts or revenues.

The “Back in Black” plan proposes $1 trillion in tax code reform savings,
$3 trillion from entitlements, $3 trillion from discretionary spending, $1 trillion from defense spending and $1 trillion in interest costs. Of course, Coburn has run afoul of groups opposed to tax increases, such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, over his willingness to entertain increased revenues for federal coffers. Most Republicans have signed ATR’s pledge to not increase taxes.

Though few would suggest that tax code reform will be easy or that it can even gain GOP support on the panel — Kyl himself walked away from the Biden group over an impasse on revenues — as long as Coburn is a player, tax reform could stay in the conversation. Super committee members have been engaged in multiple, hours-long negotiations daily as they try to hit their Thanksgiving deadline to submit a plan to the rest of Congress.

Outside the room, groups looking to sway policymakers have turned to “Back in Black” for a practical reason: It’s one of the few existing frameworks that actually has published details.

As opposed to the gang of six efforts or the Bowles-Simpson recommendation, “Back in Black” provides what sources called “actionable” pathways to deficit reduction. And in a situation where everyone is pressed against the clock — outside groups have until the end of next week to submit their suggestions — using ideas already clearly outlined can be an advantage.

For example, Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, sent a 14-page policy memo to the super committee co-chairmen, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). Of the 71 endnotes sourcing the group’s framework, 17 of them were from Coburn’s plan.

On revenue reform alone, Third Way adopted many of Coburn’s ideas, including changing the way the Consumer Price Index is calculated to update tax brackets, reforming the tax treatment of foreign-earned wages, ending mortgage deductions for second homes and eliminating ethanol tax credits.

“Our main interest in his work was that here’s a Republican who sees the problem in the tax code and concedes that up front and is willing to discuss that in addressing the deficit,” said David Kendall, Third Way’s senior fellow for health and fiscal policy.

“A lot of the reports that are out there already just have goals, sometimes a few specifics, but not to the level that Sen. Coburn has proposed,” Kendall said, adding the group had discussed ideas that it liked with Coburn’s staff. “You might not agree with everything he suggests, but he’s put it out there in a way that makes it actionable.”

On the cuts side, Republicans on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia adopted many provisions that Coburn floated to eliminate government waste, such as cutting the federal vehicle fleet by 25 percent, reducing the federal contracting workforce and enacting a three-year freeze on pay for Members of Congress. Subcommittee ranking member Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent a letter to the super committee making those recommendations last month.

Moreover, top Senate GOP aides are not surprised Coburn’s ideas are being taken seriously because they viewed his plan as a comprehensive compilation of GOP ideas that many in the Conference can support.

“Dr. Coburn has long been seen as one of the most thoughtful and effective budget cutters in the Senate. When he offers a plan, people take notice,” a leadership aide said. “And there’s no doubt his latest will draw a lot of long, hard looks from key players both inside the committee and out.”

For Coburn, he just sees the recent attention for his plan as a continuation of a fight that he’s been spearheading since he arrived in the Senate in 2004.

“What it is, is people look at it and say, ‘Why would we continue doing the stupid things?’” Coburn said, noting that his staff has been providing background detail to people who approach them about the plan. “I think people just common-sense look at it and say, ‘Why would be doing these things?’ So it’s not hard. If you actually spend the 20 hours it takes to read it, I mean, you come away with the idea of, ‘What’s going on in Washington?’”

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