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Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn On The Attempt To Cut Government Spending

Thursday, February 10, 2011

HH: Pleased to welcome back Senator Tom Coburn from the great state of Oklahoma. Doc Coburn, welcome.

TC: Hey.

HH: Last time you were on, we had some disagreements. This time, I think we’re going to agree on everything.

TC: Well, good.

HH: What is your assessment of the House Republican budget offered out of the Budget Committee yesterday that cuts $32 billion out of this year’s spending?

TC: Well, if you annualize it, of course, it is more than $32 billion. That is $32 billion out of seven months left, so it’s about $55 billion dollars annualize. Remember when we had everybody touting that we had a surplus?

HH: Uh-huh.

TC: Well how’d that come about? Everybody relates that back to the Balanced Budget act of 1997.

HH: Yup.

TC: That had nothing to do with it. You know what happened is in 1995, when the Republican Congress took over, they put through a rescission bill, which means we cut spending $68 billion dollars that year.

HH: Wow.

TC: And from ’95, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, and in 2000, we hit our first surplus, because you took that money that didn’t, that much money, at least every year, plus what it didn’t grow, and then you had the tech bubble that we collected more capital gains taxes than we’d ever collected in the history of our country, and you had a surplus. So this is a great start. I would have liked to have seen it harder and heavier. But it’s a great start. What we have to do, Hugh, is we have to get $500 billion dollars a year out of the federal budget if we’re not going to sink as a country.

HH: Now Senator, maybe we won’t agree. I believe that they promised $100 billion dollars in spending reductions. I might be persuaded that the Pledge To America had wiggle room in it that would let them get away with, you know, 7/12ths of that.

TC: Yeah, but that’s not on the C.R. That’s on next year’s budget.

HH: Well, I’ve read the Pledge a lot of times. I read it during the campaign. And it says immediately. And the people who are calling and writing, Senator Coburn, are angry that this is what’s happening.

TC: Well look, I didn’t write that. I sent a letter to them saying they needed to take at least $100 billion. It was, you know, as a division, they made a division. We, it’s…obviously, anything we do it better. I would have loved to see them do a hundred. I don’t know exactly the wording of it. But my understanding when it was presented to us as a Senate, that in the first appropriations cycle they would take a minimum, minimum of $100 billion dollars. And remember, when that pledge was written, there was no idea that there was going to be a C.R. There was going to be an omnibus appropriation. So I think you’re wrong.

HH: I don’t think I am. I quoted at, go and read it, and it also says they will immediately roll back to pre-, to 2008 spending levels, which they’re not doing by a long shot.

TC: Well, then that would say, they would have had to have put in a rescission bill.

HH: Yup.

TC: Yeah.

HH: And so…

TC: Maybe you’re right.

HH: You know, they’re…I’m going to talk to a member, a couple of members of the Congress, and they’re on my side on this. Some will be against me. Let me ask you, though, standing back, is there at least a $100 billion we could get out of this C.R. right now?

TC: Absolutely.

HH: How much could we get out of this C.R. right now?

TC: You could probably, I could get, you know, if you made me king for a day, I could get $200 billion.

HH: That’s what I’m thinking. So why aren’t they doing it?

TC: I’m not in on that. I have no idea. But again, probably the people that were elected this cycle, the new ones, they probably want it done. And they don’t, they don’t have the “wisdom” of being in Washington to know it can’t happen, which tells you what’s wrong with our political system, the careerism.

HH: Let me ask you, I had a friend of mine, Congressman Ken Calvert on yesterday, said Hugh, I’m paraphrasing here, you’ve got to remember, whatever we send over to the Senate’s got to get through the Senate. So as a Senator, does it help you that they go deeper and quicker? Or does it hurt you as a Republican arguing for budget cuts?

TC: It helps me if they go deeper and quicker.

HH: That is, isn’t that the entire argument we’re having right now?

TC: Sure. You know, if they’d have sent $100 billion, we might get $60 or $70 billion.

HH: And so if they send $32 [billion]?

TC: There may be a good shot we’d get $32 [billion].

HH: Now talk to us a little bit, Senator, about the debt ceiling, and the leverage the Republicans have right now to do the hard stuff right now.

TC: Well, I think we have some leverage. We have to be careful with how we use it. We can’t use the leverage until we’ve made sure everybody in America understands how severe, how urgent, and how catastrophic the problems are in front of us. If that, if we have leadership that sells that, and it is the truth, I know more about economics than I know about medicine right now, and I’ve practiced medicine for 25 years. We are in such a deep hole. So what we have to do is to make sure the American people understand, is we have a very short period of time with which to recover and protect our future. And so what needs to happen on the debt limit is we need to have an agreement with the White House and the Democrats and the Republicans that we’re going to take at least $4 trillion dollars, and hopefully more, out of the budget over the next ten years, at least four, and that we’re going to put in there a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

HH: Well, amen to both of those. Let me ask you, if…

TC: And $4 trillion, by the way, Hugh, doesn’t get us out of the problem. It just buys us some time.

HH: No, and maybe tells the markets that we’re serious.

TC: Yes.

HH: Let me ask you, because I don’t know the budget, you do the way you do. I’ve heard you talk about it. This is a technical question. If the House and the Senate agreed on this continuing resolution, could they do something symbolic like, say, raise the retirement age by three months, just something on the Social Security side to indicate this is one area we have to move? Or is that off limits to the continuing resolution?

TC: Well, you know, it doesn’t make sense for us to do it that way, because the Democrats are setting a trap for Republicans on Social Security. What they’re going around telling everybody is Social Security’s not in trouble. Well, it’s not in trouble if you don’t mind cutting everybody’s benefit in less than 20 years by 22%. No, it’s not in trouble. But the country’s in trouble. And every year, from now forward, we’re going to have to be paying back the money that the government stole from Social Security to keep it even just to pay the bills. It was $58 billion last year, the year before last, it was $78 billion. It’s going to be $110 billion this year. What’s the implication there? The implication is where are we going to get the money to pay it back? We’re going to go borrow more money against our kids.

HH: I agree. Now if we believe that, I mean, if the Republican Party believes that, why would the not say we don’t have any more time. This is as though your child is sick. You don’t say I’ll get to the E.R. in six months.

TC: Hugh, I’m with you. I’ve said it, I’ve said it in letters for six years. We have to change Social Security, we have to make it where we have to give the people that are more wealthy a bigger haircut on terms of what they get out of it. We need to make sure that we extend the age of it to match the life expectancy increases that we’re getting. And we have to make sure people quite cheating it.

HH: And so could that all happen now? You know…

TC: It can, but the time it’s going to happen is with the debt limit, not the C.R.

HH: And so…but has it begun? Because what I don’t…

TC: Oh, yeah. The conversations have begun, but you cannot do this without presidential leadership. And let me tell you what the career politician thinks. I’m not sticking my nose out on Social Security like Tom Coburn does, because what they’re going to say in my campaign, if the President doesn’t come along, is you wanted to cut seniors’ Social Security. And there’s no cuts in here for anybody over 52 years of age.

HH: And here’s where I think…hasn’t that changed? Isn’t the country now aware enough that the people who step up and say we are going to sit at this table until the President comes along, and we’re not going to fund the government, we’re just going to keep ratcheting it down 1% a week until he comes in here and we sit down and do a comprehensive budget solution?

TC: Well, I think, you know, we can have the confrontative exercise, but we’re working hard behind the scenes. I am, with Democrat colleagues and Republicans, and the President, to try to build something that we can all agree on that will march us down this road to austerity, and send the signal to the international financial markets that we get it. You realize, the ten year Treasury bill has gone up a half a percent in the last two and a half weeks?

HH: Yup, yup. And that’s…

TC: Interest rate rises are coming, we’re debasing our currency, we’re going to see hyperinflation, hyper-unemployment, and a decline in GDP 8-10% if we don’t fix this.

HH: How close to an agreement are you, and what does it look like? I only have about a minute and a half…

TC: Well, we’re a ways, we’re working. I talk to the President every ten days or so. What we’ve got to do is get consensus among Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and then get the consensus among the Democrats and Republicans in the House, and get consensus among the President. And it’s a hard thing to do, because people are protecting political turf. And here’s it in a nutshell. Are people in Washington willing to do what is best for this country’s future, and give up their seat? Or would they rather stay here and let the country squander?

HH: And does it involve tax hikes, Tom Coburn?

TC: Yeah, there’ll be some in terms of decline in benefit. But the overall net is your net tax will be decreased.

HH: You think this has a prayer?

TC: Yeah, I do.

HH: And what’s the timetable for taking the wrap off?

TC: Well, you’ve got to get the agreement before you take the wrap off. If you negotiate it in public, it’ll never happen.

HH: I agree, but are we talking four weeks, six weeks?

TC: As fast as I can work on it.

HH: Well, God speed, Senator Tom Coburn. I look forward to talking to you about it. Thanks for joining us.

End of interview.

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