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Sen. Tom Coburn’s Solution for ‘Debt Bomb’: Everybody Must Sacrifice

May 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., speaks with Judy Woodruff about his plan to tackle the nation's escalating fiscal crisis, as outlined in his new book "The Debt Bomb." Coburn says "everyone," from both the right and the left, must sacrifice to fix the country's mounting debt problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to another kind of crisis, a fiscal one.

Last week, we talked with congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein about their book, “It’s Even Worse That It Looks.” They put the blame for Congress’ inability to resolve budgets and other problems primarily on Republicans.

For a different perspective, I sat down earlier today with another author, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Sen. Tom Coburn, thank you very much for talking with us.

SEN. TOM COBURN, R-Okla.: I’m happy to talk with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have written a book. The title is “The Debt Bomb.” What is it? What caused it?

SEN. TOM COBURN: Well, both parties have caused it. Careerism has caused it.

And you’re seeing it played out today in Washington before this election. Nobody wants to make the hard choices. Nobody wants to be totally honest with the American people when, in fact, we can get reelected without doing so.

And so what has happened over the years is we have built programs, well-intentioned, compassionate hearts, and haven’t put the revenues to pay for them, and haven’t done the oversight on the things we have done with good intentions to clean them up and make sure they’re not wasteful.

So what we have created is a situation where the next generation is really at risk. This generation is at risk. If you have an IRA, for example, and you are planning on retiring in five or six years, with the inflation that’s coming, it’s not going to be adequate.

And so what we’ve done is we have actually lived the last 30 years in this country off the next 30. And the bill is due.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much of this book is about what should be done about it. Tell us in a nutshell what you think should be done about this.

SEN. TOM COBURN: As a physician, I see symptoms that manifest from a disease.

The disease is the political class, both parties in this country, and their desire to be careerists. The symptoms are all these problems that we have with all these programs. Most Americans don’t realize that the federal government’s twice as big as it was 10 years ago in terms of the dollars that it spends.

And so there are tons of problems that we could address if we would be honest with the American people, but most politicians don’t want to tell you, you can’t have something in the future when they’re coming up on an election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You advocate big cuts in discretionary spending. You talk about a hatchet to discretionary spending.

When people hear that, they think, what does that mean? You talk about making a sacrifice in order to have future prosperity. Who — which Americans would sacrifice?

SEN. TOM COBURN: Everybody.

The only way to do this is to make sure it is seen as everybody sharing in the sacrifice to get our country back where it needs to be. We haven’t lost the American spirit. If we had leadership that pulled this country together around what the problems are and said, here are the problems, Medicare’s absolutely unsustainable, Social Security is unsustainable, discretionary spending is unsustainable, our Defense Department is unsustainable, here are the problems, and here are the options that we can fix them.

And if we delay putting off those sacrifices, and, in other words, taking some of the pain, the pain is going to be much more difficult and much more severe, especially those people who are highly dependent on the rest of us for their aging years or their medical needs right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things you talk about is saving, I think you say, $3 trillion over a period of years just by cutting out duplication, waste.

Every president I can remember has come into office saying we need to do something about waste, fraud, and abuse. But once you get here, they have gotten here, they found out it’s a lot more complicated than that.

SEN. TOM COBURN: Well, it isn’t.


SEN. TOM COBURN: What has happened is, it’s not presidents. It’s Congress. And that’s the point I make in the book.

Here’s Medicare. We’re worried about Medicare. And we can document that there’s at least $100 billion a year in fraud and Medicare. Why? Why would he have a system — if the system is designed to be defrauded, why haven’t we changed the system?

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the role that the tax cuts have played that came in under the previous administration, under President Bush, and the two wars, all of which have contributed enormously?

SEN. TOM COBURN: There’s no question that they have contributed.

But you need to look at their scope. The wars are $1.2 trillion, all right? We have unfunded liabilities of $131 trillion in Medicare and Social Security alone. That’s with — here’s the other thing that most people don’t know. Government uses government accounting. If you use generally accepted accounting principles, our unfunded liabilities right now that your kids, my kids, and our grandkids are going to have to pay for us is $131 trillion.

That’s a million dollars per child born today in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A big part of the argument, as you know very well, is Democrats say — many Democrats say there needs to be some parity between spending cuts and taxes, that revenues have got to go up.

SEN. TOM COBURN: I agree with that. I will. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: But your party doesn’t agree with that. So how do you. . .

SEN. TOM COBURN: Well, my party does agree with it.

Paul Ryan put revenue on the table. Pat Toomey in the super committee put revenue on the table. Bowles-Simpson put revenue on the table. The gang of six put revenue on the table. The key is, is, do you create a tax code that will, in fact, enhance investment which will grow our economy, rather than use the tax code to take those decision-makers who have capital now and make them not players in the economy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write, Senator, about the — what’s happened in Europe. You talk about the international welfare state, the collapse of that, the disincentives to work.

Now, what we have seen lately in Europe is governments have reacted to that with these so-called austerity programs, and now the voters are saying, it’s too much, it’s too far.

Is austerity a sound economic policy?

SEN. TOM COBURN: No, you have to have both.

You have to incentivize growth, but you have also to have austerity. But my contention in our country is, we don’t have to have austerity. We just need to have some common sense applied to what we’re doing. When you have 47 different job training programs that we spend $19 billion a year on, all but three of them overlap one another, there’s no metric to say they’re working, as a matter of fact, the proof is, is that they’re not working, and we continue to do the same thing, the American people say, why would you do that?

Why would you have 47? Why not have three, put a metric on it, and see if it works? We have a job training program that’s designed to keep people in the job training business employed, but not to train people for jobs that are available in our economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re not concerned that the kind of — that the austerity moves that we saw in Europe, if they happened here, could create the same kind of backlash?

SEN. TOM COBURN: I would tell you that if you actually do the work and know what’s going on in our government, that you could easily take $250 billion a year out of our government and transfer that to flattening the code, so that the average middle-income taxpayer, hardworking middle-income taxpayer actually pays less in taxes, and you will get a boon to our economy.

In other words, not spend it here, and transfer it to the middle-income taxpayer, and you will get a boon. And we’re getting no economic return for it. That’s the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re talking about a culture, a kind of conduct on the part of members of Congress. How do you change that, Senator. . .

SEN. TOM COBURN: You change who’s here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . quickly enough to do something about this debt crisis?

SEN. TOM COBURN: You change who’s here.

It’s term limits. I’m self-imposed in terms limits. I know that this place changes people. And everybody — these people are great people here. They’re well-intentioned, but they’re double-minded. Get reelected, that’s what is number-one goal. Fix the country becomes number two because you can’t fix the country unless you’re here.

And what I wanted to do with this book is expose the American public what is actually going on here and why we’ve not addressed the problem and what the consequences are going to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Tom Coburn, the author of the new book “The Debt Bomb,” thank you very much for talking with us.

SEN. TOM COBURN: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.