U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s vote against opening the government and raising the country debt limit is yet another example of his crass, bifurcated political style.
In an extremely bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate voted 81-18 Wednesday to fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. This came after a 16-day government shutdown.
Coburn was one of the 18 who voted against it, which might not seem unusual, unless you consider all his previous public statements railing against the Republican strategy to hold the government hostage in order to defund the Affordable Care Act. Coburn called that GOP strategy “intellectually dishonest.”
“But to create the impression that we can defund ObamaCare when the only thing we control — and barely — is the U.S. House of Representatives is not intellectually honest,” Coburn said on MSNBC days before the vote.
That statement seems reasonable enough coming from a politician who recently said, in perhaps a less lucid moment, that President Barack Obama was “getting perilously close” to impeachment, which was a bizarre, untruthful claim.
But when the time came to vote on the funding bill, Coburn chose to keep the government closed and destroy the nation’s economy. Fortunately, there were more than enough Senators who actually agreed with Coburn’s statements about the awful, senseless Republican strategy in the first place.
So, in other words, Coburn tries to have it both ways. On one hand, he seems like a rational moderate by opposing fringe elements in his party. On the other hand, he votes in unison with that fringe element. He gets away with it because the corporate media here won’t hold him accountable to his obvious contradiction.
Here was Coburn’s statement after his vote:
Washington doesn’t need short-term budget and debt limit extensions as much as we need a long-term spending addiction recovery plan. The American people should do what any responsible parent would do if their adolescent child couldn't handle the responsibility of a credit card. We should cut up the credit card and live within our means. With this agreement, the hard decisions we have to make have only been put off for another day, when our fiscal problems will be bigger and more painful to solve. It’s time to make tough choices now.
These are standard, hollow GOP talking points. Coburn, who claims for now that he’s not going to run for reelection in 2016, is simply appeasing his ill-informed base of supporters, which he purposely enrages with misinformation and presidential impeachment suggestions. It should make people wonder if he actually IS going to run for reelection.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe was unable to vote on Wednesday because he’s recovering from major heart surgery, but it’s a good bet he would have voted along with Coburn to keep the government closed and ruin the country’s credit by not raising the debt ceiling.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole was the only politician in Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation that had the decency and common sense to stand up to the Tea Party radicals and vote in favor of the bill. Cole also stayed consistent with his earlier remarks criticizing the GOP strategy, which ultimately cost the country’s economy an estimated $24 billion.
But let’s get back to Coburn. As I’ve written again and again, Coburn likes to present himself as a dignified statesman championing government fiscal responsibility, but his actions often expose him as a Republican extremist and political opportunist. His vote to inflict further damage on the nation’s economy for what seems to be obvious personal political gain is yet another example of that.
When are more Oklahomans going to see that today’s Republicans manufacture false crisis after false crisis in an attempt to institute right-wing policies that harm the middle class and poor?
I’m not just referring to the GOP debacle in Washington where a small fraction of Tea Party conservatives are damaging the nation’s economy and holding the rest of us hostage by preventing simple procedural votes to fund the federal government and raise the country’s debt limit.
It happens here all the time, as well, from draconian abortion restrictions that only hurt poor women to tort reform that limits damage awards to major cuts in public education precipitated by tax cuts. All the major GOP initiatives come tagged with a breathless, obligatory crisis label, but they all add up to the same thing: Extremism and crisis language replace sound government policy.
The latest manufactured crisis by the GOP surrounds the state’s pension plans. According to Republicans, the current $11.6 billion liability of these plans for teachers, state workers and first responders are creating a crisis that must be dealt with during next year’s legislative session. Essentially, that means cuts in benefits for new employees, if not, eventually, for longtime workers.
But is there really a crisis? Haven’t the fiscal foundations of these plans actually improved in recent years?
In a recent blog post, David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, argues, “It should now be time to officially declare the ‘Crisis in the Oklahoma State Pension Systems’ to be over.” Blatt carefully points out recent legislation that has actually made the state's pension plans more solvent.
I won’t rehash Blatt’s post here, but the overall point he makes is a good one.
It raises the question: Why are Gov. Mary Fallin and others targeting pension plans that seem to be gaining solvency?
Essentially, Republicans want to change the pension plans from defined-benefit plans, which guarantee set retirement payouts based on a variety of factors to defined-contribution plans, which don’t guarantee a set amount. This would most likely result in a reduction of benefits for state workers, including teachers.
There has been no actual “reform” plan presented, but it has been presumed that new hires would fall under the new method while those in the defined-benefit plans could stay in those plans.
The problem with that, of course, is that it’s uncertain what will happen if newer workers aren’t paying into the pool of money used to support the defined-benefit plans of current retirees.
If the defined-benefit plans take on more liability because of lack of funding, then the GOP could declare yet another crisis and reduce benefits for current retirees and those workers close to retirement.
Meanwhile, many state workers have gone without an across-the-board raise for several years, but the GOP, which controls Oklahoma government, doesn’t seem overly concerned about that. That’s NOT a crisis for Republicans.
By now it’s a GOP trope or formula: Manufacture a crisis, then do harm to middle-class people while rewarding the rich with tax cuts and subsidies. That’s what’s happening in Washington right now as thousands go without paychecks and that’s what happening in Oklahoma.
Anyone who has lived here any length of time and pays attention knows that Oklahoma consistently faces a barrage of reports and studies showing its dismal national rankings in socio-economic, health, women, equality and education issues.
Oklahoma is ranked so low so often that many of us face it with a sort of grim, self-deprecating humor. What else can you do when your state is ranked last or near the last in most quality-of-life issues? We know what needs to be fixed, but there’s no political will or money to do so.
Just recently, Oklahoma was ranked 48th in the nation for women’s welfare and deemed one of the most dangerous states in the nation. A new chart just released showed Oklahoma had the most draconian abortion laws in the country. The state has long led the nation in the number of women it incarcerates, and during the recession, a recent report showed, Oklahoma cut education funding more than any other state on a percentage basis. I could go on.
I once described the barrage of reports as “reportitis,” noting how it could affect overall morale here. That was in 2007.
Under the current GOP-dominated government and even before that, Oklahomans couldn’t expect much progress on quality of life issues. Democrats might move us up incrementally higher with new, appropriate government programs, but it’s never enough to make up for years of neglect.
Now that the federal government has become highly dysfunctional and put into paralysis by Tea Party extremists, the country’s political process might seem entirely futile to some progressive Oklahomans. What’s there to do? Wait it out until something happens?
One thing progressive Oklahomans can do is expend their political energy on urban issues, particularly in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas. Our nation’s cities, according to some national leaders, are making progress even as the federal government stagnates and fails.
Writing on Salon.com, Henry Grabar points out, “For years, city officials and urban theorists have heralded the arrival of the metropolitan area as the most dynamic unit of American governance and economic growth. What better endorsement than anarchy at the Capitol and order in the streets?” Grabar cites the work of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, whose book The Metropolitan Revolution deals with the issue of the emergence of the city as the center of political importance.
I’ve argued for the importance of city politics for progressives for some time now. Can you shut out all the noise from the chaos of the federal government and the GOP-social agenda here at the state level? Of course not, but you can create and expand forward-thinking enclaves within cities. These enclaves connect to others like them in other cities, but not necessarily to any state government or the federal government.
One obstacle facing Oklahoma City, in particular, is its heavy reliance on the federal government for jobs so its economic health could be directly related to a functioning, normal-acting federal government, which probably won’t happen anytime soon. That doesn’t mean improving the quality of life in Oklahoma couldn’t have its own deep economic impact.
It doesn't look like progressives can do much on the state level in Oklahoma right now, and until that changes, local government probably represents the best opportunity for change and progress.