Last Saturday, America lost a true giant and one of the great men in our nation’s history. Dr. Tom Coburn, the legendary former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, passed away after a seven-year battle with prostate cancer.
The first time I met Dr. Coburn was at his Senate office on Capitol Hill in 2013. Coburn would soon be listed on the Time 100: Most Influential Persons in the World. I didn’t have a national reputation.
In fact, our organization had only a handful of employees and a small budget. Frankly, I was a little intimidated and uncharacteristically nervous. I had spoken before large groups, but I didn’t know how a national figure like Coburn would receive my ideas.
He immediately put me at ease with his no-nonsense demeanor and heartfelt enthusiasm about what our little citizen-led operation was up to.
We had just released a first-of-its-kind mobile app (Open The Books) that displayed individual federal checkbook transactions by ZIP Code across America. This phone app let you see who received how much federal money. Our work was made possible by legislation spearheaded by Coburn and then-Senator Barack Obama – the so-called “Google Your Government” act from 2006.
In our meeting, Dr. Coburn used the app to key his own ZIP Code and looked up the farm subsidies flowing to his friends around Muskogee. Farmers often cry “poor,” and Coburn later told me he had a lot of fun ribbing his subsidy-receiving buddies during breakfast at the local diner.
When Dr. Coburn left the U.S. Senate in 2015, he joined up as our honorary chairman. Outlining his thoughts on the mission at The Wall Street Journal, Coburn wrote:
Citizen activists can now monitor online how elected federal and state officials are spending their money.
Dr. Tom Coburn, Tracking Government Waste— There’s An App For That, The Wall Street Journal, 10/7/2015
Dr. Coburn trusted the genius of regular people and distrusted the DC elites. Over the next few years we fought many public policy battles together.
We published six open letters in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal addressed to President Donald Trump urging him to embrace the transparency revolution and declare war on waste. Dr. Coburn was our editor, and I prepared the 100 examples of egregious taxpayer abuse.
In the U.S. Senate and afterwards, Dr. Coburn advocated for healthcare price discovery. Last fall, even after Coburn had stopped doing all media because of the advancing cancer, he didn’t stop writing. Coburn’s editorial published at FOX News is a tour-de-force argument on the issue.
Last May, Dr. Coburn urged an oversight report on the top “non-profit” charitable hospitals across the country who were making big profits. Within 30 days, at Coburn’s direction, we quantified a 23 percent annual increase in non-profit hospital net assets while, separately, some CEO’s made up to $59.4 million during a four-year period.
He was always eager to work on projects together. A few other examples:
- In June 2016, our oversight report on the militarization of rank-and-file federal agencies launched at The Wall Street Journal in a co-authored piece entitled, “Why Does The IRS Need Guns?” Our editorial led to congressional hearings, subpoenas, and legislation.
- In October 2018, we co-authored an editorial at The Hill urging the President to declare war on wasteful spending. Much of our position was eventually adopted when our organization was cited by name in the President’s Budget To Congress FY2021.
- In January 2019, we co-authored an editorial at Real Clear Politics outlining a strategy to cut the bloat in the federal bureaucracy. Why are 91,000 federal employees out-earning the governor in the state in which they are based?
Coburn was a tireless public servant and citizen legislator who brought decades of real-world experience to our nation’s toughest challenges. At his core, he was an entrepreneur and private sector physician who delivered 4,000 babies in his hometown. We always called him “Dr. Coburn” – not Senator – because of his first calling.
Before Coburn left the U.S. Senate in 2015, he issued his “three-minute warning” to America – on the seriousness of overspending and the pressing need to cut pork from the budget. Read his entire warning here.
Dr. Coburn was a mighty fighter. In May 2018, before my address to the City Club of Chicago, he agreed to introduce me. This came at a personal cost to him: Coburn boarded a 5am flight from Tulsa to St. Louis and connected to Chicago. He did all of this while battling cancer.
We picked him up and took him to the local television station for an interview and then on to the City Club reception. After Dr. Coburn gave my introduction, he couldn’t even stay for lunch. Immediately, he left to catch a flight to Alabama for an evening engagement.
Coburn’s personal sacrifice to the transparency revolution meant so much to me, and inspired our entire team.
Now, he belongs to the ages.
Last Saturday, the nation lost a father, friend, mentor, and true statesman. Thank you, Dr. Coburn, for your faith, courage, and leadership. We are forever partners.
Rest In Peace, Thomas Allen Coburn.