Reminder: Sen. Coburn Is Not A "Fiscal Hawk"

October 27, 2011 8:49 am ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

We've covered this before, but Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) persistent image as a "deficit hawk" justifies some repetition: The Oklahoma Republican is not a relentless opponent of government deficits, willing to do whatever it takes to balance the budget. Instead, Coburn, like just about every other member of Congress, wants to eliminate things he doesn't like and retain things he does. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, or particularly noteworthy — except as a reminder that Coburn's well-cultivated reputation for principled opposition to budgetary excess is fraudulent. 

Most recently, Coburn won Senate passage of an amendment prohibiting USDA payments to farms with income in excess of $1 million. Coburn's fact sheet on the amendment is silent about how much money the amendment would save, though it includes a dozen or so other figures in an apparent attempt to distract the reader from the missing number. Coburn's fact sheet does indicate that in 2008 USDA "paid $49 million to individuals who exceeded" $2.5 million in adjusted gross income, so the amendment's savings are likely in the millions, not billions, and more useful for symbolism than budget-balancing.

Anyway, take a look at Coburn's comments about the amendment:

"Before raising taxes on the rich Congress should first stop spending money on the rich. Sending direct payments to farmers who make more than $1 million a year is a de facto tax increase on every middle and low-income family who doesn't receive this special benefits from Washington."

Another:

Coburn, himself from a rural state, said he doesn't think farmers' "safety net" can be thrown away completely, "but we can limit its impact so we aren't overly supporting those who are doing just fine."

One more:

[Coburn] argued that "rather than taxing millionaires, the first thing we ought to do is quit giving them subsidies."

Now: Which one of Coburn's statements would not apply to $21 billion in tax breaks for the five largest oil companies? They all would, of course. Those companies are "doing just fine." Eliminating their "special benefits from Washington" would save billions — not just millions — of dollars each year. But in this case, Tom Coburn wants to keep "spending money on the rich." (And no, the difference isn't that the oil companies get tax breaks rather than "direct payments" like farmers: Coburn calls tax breaks like those received by the oil companies "government spending through the tax code" — when he's talking about recipients he doesn't quite like so much.)

A senator who wants to eliminate millions of dollars in payments to farmers while retaining billions of dollars in giveaways to five massive oil companies isn't a "deficit hawk" — he's just someone who likes oil companies more than farmers. 

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