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Lankford Honors Former Oklahoma Senator, Dr. Tom Coburn, on the Senate Floor

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s remarks on the Senate floor.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today honored the life and legacy of his friend and former Oklahoma Senator, Dr. Tom Coburn, whose passing was announced March 28, 2020. Lankford’s tribute to Dr. Coburn included important lessons imparted on him by Dr. Coburn prior to Lankford’s service in both the House and Senate. Lankford also highlighted the legacy Dr. Coburn leaves behind in the Senate as an institution and on his fellow senators and the way they interact.


Today I rise to pause and remember March 28, 2020. It’s the day that Oklahomans and the nation lost a patriot and a friend to many. I stand here at this desk that I have used for the past five years. But before it was my desk, it was the desk of Dr. Tom Coburn. A few days after we gaveled out in March, Dr. Coburn took his first breath in heaven where he was finally cancer-free, finally pain-free, living in the presence of Jesus where there’s no government waste and no inefficiency, with there’s no conflicts, and liberty is absolutely eternal. We will miss his sage advice, his blunt perspective, and his steadfast wisdom.

Dr. Coburn served in this chamber for ten years, from 2005 to 2015. But he also served in the House of Representatives for six years, from 1995 to 2001. The one title he carried in both of those chambers was doctor. And that was his preferred term. Thomas Allen Coburn was born in Casper, Wyoming, March 14, 1948. Dr. Coburn graduated from Central High School in 1966. in 1968, he married Carolyn Denton, the 1967 Miss Oklahoma, Carolyn Denton. They had three daughters and nine grandchildren. At Oklahoma State University, Dr. Coburn was an honors student, president of the student business council, and graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

After the family business was sold that he worked at, he attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma, received his medical degree with honors in 1983. Interned at Saint Anthony’s hospital in Oklahoma City, and in 1986 he founded the Muskogee Family Medical practice, which is still in operation today. His victory over melanoma as a young man inspired him to become a physician. He stated he wanted to give back because he had been given to. Unfortunately that battle with melanoma when he was a young man was not his last battle with cancer.

As a physician, his dedication to his patients was inexhaustible. Over his career he delivered 4,000 babies and would often see 30 patients a day in his office. After his election to the House of Representatives in 1994, he would fly from Washington, DC—every week he’d fly home—so that he could continue to see his patients on weekends, a schedule he maintained for the entire six years he spent in the house.

He was a doctor all the time. It was not uncommon for him to be in a conversation with someone who, right in the middle of the conversation, he would ask them how they’re feeling because he picked up something in their demeanor that he thought was a little bit wrong. Dr. Coburn was a deacon and a Sunday school teacher, and in all the story that I’ve told you, if you’re looking for some element of politics in the background, you won’t find it until 1994.

His decision to run for Congress in 1994 was a long shot. He narrowly won, becoming the first Republican to represent Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District in 73 years. He went to Congress as a man on a mission. He was determined to help solve the nation’s problems. His focus was not Oklahoma; it was the nation. I remember asking him privately before I started serving in the House of Representatives how he made a difference. His answer was there are two people that make a difference in Congress: the person who studies and the Committee Chairman. study more than anyone else. Know the issue, and you can get it done.

His tenacity on every issue was legendary. Politico once summarized it well saying, A typical bill moving through the Senate has a number of institutional hurdles to clear. Subcommittee, Committee, leadership, and Coburn. It’s that last one you won’t find in the textbook.” His staff are wholly devoted to the cause, not necessarily because of him but because of the mission. One of his former staffers wrote this after Dr. Coburn passed. He said, “We blocked a lot of bills. We offered a lot of amendments. We lost a lot of votes. We highlighted a lot of wasteful spending, and we irked a lot of people. And over time we started changing how business was done. Bills that added new spending couldn’t pass without offsets. Program duplication became part of the lexicon. The practice of earmarking went away. People started paying attention to government waste.”

Dr. Coburn’s annual waste book became one of the more high-profile reports coming out of Washington each year. Over the years Dr. Coburn and his team highlighted trillions in questionable spending on low-priority items that taxpayers were unwittingly paying for. Any spending that proved to be classic spending wastefulness, do the public use it, fraudulent or ineffective likely made the list each year. The waste book became a rallying cry for taxpayers frustrated by Washington’s spending habits. Phrases that are common in American political conversations today like the “bridge to nowhere,” “shrimp on a treadmill,” “term limits,” “earmarks,” were all battles that he fought to win.

In 2010, in a fight over the debt limit increase, Dr. Coburn created an annual report in that decision from the Government Accountability Office on government duplication. It seemed like just another government report, but that report, that report that he passed in 2010, has saved taxpayers $262 billion so far. Dr. Coburn and his team were in the fights worth fighting. But they were battling on the playing field of ideas and policy proposals, not against people.

In a town that wants to label everything left versus right, liberal versus conservative, Dr. Coburn and his team didn’t have any criteria to meet those who joined him in the fight. They were willing to pull together any ally. He didn’t have to agree on everything, but as long as you agreed on a couple of things in front of you, that’s what mattered. The friendships that were forged in the fight were genuine, true, and certainly unique. He was the chief sponsor of President Obama’s USAspending.gov to increase transparency in government spending. He was a champion for HIV and AIDS patients and medical research to save lives. He was a tenacious fighter for Social Security Disability fraud, eventually exposing a billion-dollar Social Security scam in West Virginia run by a lawyer named Eric Kahn, a Kentucky lawyer who filed thousands of bogus Disability applications.

He was a master of Senate rules. His clay pigeon amendment is legendary in Senate procedure. He was one of the unlikeliest members to vote for TARP in 2008. It was probably one of the hardest votes that he took, but when he looked at the facts in front of him, he saw it was the right thing to do. That was ultimately what it boiled down to. He was willing to do the right thing no matter what the cost. He opposed what needed opposition, but he would prefer to argue in private to resolve an issue rather than in public, although he was clearly not afraid to argue in public.

After years of serving families as their physician, a task he continued on weekends even when he was in the House of Representatives, the Senate Ethics Committee ruled that Dr. Coburn was violating conflict of interest rules by holding an outside job and prohibited him from practicing medicine as a senator. Dr. Coburn then just stopped taking payment and did his work as a physician pro bono, and the Ethics Committee also rejected that plan and prohibited him from working pro bono even as a physician.

Ironically, I am now the chairman of Ethics for the Senate, and the last time i visited with Dr. Coburn at his house in February, in the middle of our long, great conversation, he said to me, Since you’re the chairman of Ethics, why don’t you get that rule changed and allow doctors to still practice medicine while they are in the Senate. That’s wrong. That needs to be fixed.” Even in the end, he was still working to right what was wrong. 

Many people know that when Dr. Coburn left the Senate, he spent his time trying to fix Congress, still working on term limits and a balanced budget amendment. if you have not seen it, you should read some of the things his former staff wrote about Dr. Coburn after he passed away a few weeks ago. Any senator in this chamber could only wish that our staff looked up to us as much as his staff looked up to him.

I thought the best way to honor Dr. Coburn today, though, was to remind this body of what Dr. Coburn said as he walked out of this body, his farewell speech. Among the many things he said, he challenged the Senate and senators by saying this: “The Senate was designed uniquely to force compromise, not to force gridlock, to force compromise. One senator had the power to stop everything for the first 100 years, but it didn’t because compromise was the goal. Our founders understood there were many differences between the states in size, in geography, economy, and opinions. They united the states as one country based upon the premise that many are more powerful than the one. As senators, we have to follow this example.”

Then he said this: “I have not always done that. I admit that freely to you. But I should have. As senators, we must follow the example: stand for our principles, but working to find those areas of agreement where compromise can be found to unite and move our country forward. Not all the powers of the senators are exercised on the Senate floor. Each member of the Senate has a unique role to participate and practice oversight, to hold the government accountable. That’s part of our duties except most often that is the part of our duties that is most ignored. True debates about national priorities would come about if we did effective oversight. It is the Senate, once hailed as the world’s greatest deliberative body, where these differences should be argued. Our differences should be resolved through civil discourse so they are not settled in the streets. Just as the constitution provides for a majority rule in our democracy while protecting the rights of the individual, the Senate must return to the principles to bring trust of the electorate, and it can”

The theme of his whole farewell speech centered around this one statement: We do not have one problem we cannot solve. There is nothing too big for us. They are all solvable. On this National Day of Prayer, I believe it’s entirely appropriate that we pray for Dr. Coburn’s family, friends, and former staff who will miss his friendship and his counsel, so will our nation. I pray that Carolyn, their daughters, and their families cherish the memories of a husband, dad, and grandfather. Our state and our nation will be forever grateful for your sacrifice. I pray that the tasks Dr. Coburn began would be completed for the sake of our liberty and of our future, and I pray that this body would take up the challenge he left on this floor to solve the hard problems, the hard problems we face as a nation together.