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On the heels of releasing a report declaring Congress itself the biggest waste of government money, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) remains optimistic that lawmakers will strike a deal in the upcoming lame-duck session to at least avert going off the fiscal cliff.
“Politicians tend to do the hard things when not doing them is more painful, and so I think you’re going to see a resolution in the fall to the cliff one way or the other because the pain of not doing it is so great,” Coburn said today. “What that will be, I can’t tell, but I can tell you I think it will get resolved.”
Coburn said in an interview with Roll Call that while the 2012 edition of his annual “Wastebook” released Tuesday featured 100 examples of government waste, he could have found more than 1,000 programs for the list. But he reserved the No. 1 position for the legislature, citing statistics showing that this Congress has been the least productive in decades.
“We’ve never faced this serious of a situation in our country’s history in terms of our debt deleveraging, in terms of our total debt, in terms of ... our unfunded liabilities, and yet Congress has done nothing to address any of those issues this year,” Coburn said. “What we did was do nothing ... because there’s an election coming up, at a time when the country’s problems are the greatest.”
Neither party’s leadership has placed much emphasis on resolving fiscal issues until after the elections, which Coburn acknowledged.
“We haven’t had leadership from the president, we haven’t had leadership from [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid; quite frankly, we haven’t had leadership out of the House of Representatives either,” Coburn said.
Coburn renewed his criticism of Reid over his floor management style and habit of precluding Republicans from offering amendments that may be politically difficult for Senators within his caucus.
The Nevada Democrat says that GOP opposition has contributed to the collapse of comity that had traditionally allowed robust debate on the Senate floor. Reid has frequently had trouble getting bills on to the floor for consideration over the past few years, facing filibusters of procedural motions.
“I’ve had to file motions to overcome 382 filibusters in six years. Now, I know the Senate has changed since Lyndon Johnson was the Majority Leader, but during the six years that he was the Majority Leader, he had to file cloture once,” Reid said before the Senate departed in September.
Coburn said that, given the opportunity next year, he plans to resume his routine of offering amendments to cut what he perceives as wasteful government spending, regardless of which party is in control. He has often frustrated Republicans and Democrats alike by targeting other lawmakers’ pet projects.
“If you give me the opportunity to play as a legislator, offer serious amendments to fix things, I’ll try to do it,” he said. “But that hasn’t been the case this last two, almost three years.”
The 2012 “Wastebook” is essentially a compilation of work done by Coburn’s staff both in his personal office and at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations, where he serves as ranking member. The staff relies heavily on work done by the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office in assembling the report on potentially wasteful projects. Coburn has actually led an effort to block cuts to the GAO budget, thinking that the auditing arm of Congress finds enough waste, fraud and abuse elsewhere to more than justify the expense.
Coburn has demonstrated himself unafraid of using arcane Senate procedures to help secure votes on his proposals. Last year, he forced a test vote on ending a tax credit for ethanol over the objections of some farm-state lawmakers by filing his own cloture motion.
He considers targeted tax preferences to be no different from equally targeted subsidy programs on the spending side of the ledger, which has put him at odds with many Republicans.
His report highlights the tax credit for a by-product from paper production known as “black liquor.” Coburn says that is just one example of the problem with targeted tax benefits.
“The question is how is it that we continue to have a tax code that continues to allow the well-connected and well-heeled to get benefits that other businesses don’t get, and so I’m not against renewable forms of energy or utilization, but I’m for a tax code that’s clean,” Coburn said.
Coburn continues to work on a budget overhaul plan as one of the “gang of eight” Senators attempting to craft a comprehensive deficit package. He declined to comment on the specifics of those talks out of concern that might undermine negotiations. Members of that group met last week at Mount Vernon and talks are ongoing, even if support from the Senate leadership has been limited.