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On Throwback Thursday: Sen. Tom Coburn and the Bridge to Nowhere

By Chris Casteel

Washington Bureau

For an upcoming piece I’m doing on departing Sen. Tom Coburn, The Oklahoman’s awesome archivist and researcher Linda Lynn pulled this 2005 story (below) on Coburn’s floor fight with his colleagues over pork barrel projects, including the Bridge to Nowhere.

Look at some of the projects he was trying to kill _ nearly $1 million for a PARKING LOT at a Nebraska ART MUSEUM! Half a million for a SCULPTURE GARDEN at a SEATTLE ART MUSEUM!

Congressional spending bills used to have hundreds of of projects like those every year adding up to billions of dollars. Many lawmakers compiled lists of them and ridiculed them _ including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. _ but Coburn went to the Senate floor and actually tried to redirect the money.

As Coburn says in the upcoming Q and A in The Oklahoman, it took many people to end that practice. Ultimately it took congressional leaders to stop it. But Coburn was the one who brought a new kind of spotlight to the practice when he dared to try to remove the projects, knowing the kind of treatment he would get from his colleagues in both parties.

Plenty would argue _ with merit _ that pork hasn’t totally disappeared, that lawmakers still fund or protect spending in their home districts (some have said that about the 7 AWACS planes at Tinker Air Force Base hat the Air Force wanted to cut but couldn’t).

But the culture and the practices are completely different now than they were in 2005, Coburn’s first year in the U.S. Senate:




Coburn's proposals get KO'd in Senate spat

Chris Casteel

Fri. Oct 21, 2005

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn's pork-busting got personal Thursday, prompting the equivalent of a schoolyard brawl in the staid Senate.

Though Coburn wound up being pummeled like a new kid who doesn't know the playground rules, he got in a few licks before losing.

Coburn, the freshman Republican from Muskogee, started the fight when he tried to knock out some "special projects" from a spending bill, including $500,000 for a sculpture garden at a Seattle art museum and another $950,000 for a parking lot at an art museum in Nebraska.

The projects were in the portion of the spending bill that funds the Housing and Urban Development Department.

"What's more important -- feeding people and housing people or building a sculpture park?" Coburn said, noting that 15,590 homeless people are in the state of Washington.

Senators ultimately decided to preserve the funding for the sculpture park.

Though many lawmakers will criticize so-called pork barrel projects and curse their effect on the national debt, they don't typically offer amendments aimed at stripping a colleague's home-state projects from a bill and force them to justify the spending.

And most senators -- including Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe -- didn't appreciate Coburn's efforts to do that Thursday.

Coburn got the strongest rebuke from U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who managed the spending bill on the Senate floor.

Bond, seeming to mock the Senate convention of complimenting colleagues during debate, talked about Coburn's habit of practicing medicine during Senate breaks and said he envied Coburn's abilities.

Then he delivered the blow.

"You know what I do when I have time off?" Bond said. "I travel around the state."

He said he goes to communities to find out whether they need a county health center or improved water and sewer facilities.

"They know I'm not a physician," Bond said. "But they know I'm up here to serve and represent them."

Bond asked about funding in the bill for an Indian museum in Ponca City.

Coburn said he didn't know anything about it and that Inhofe must have requested it. He said he would offer an amendment to strip funding for that project.

Ryan Thompson, a spokesman for Inhofe, said the bill included $200,000 for Ponca City to help build a museum and statue commemorating Ponca Chief Standing Bear. The request came from Inhofe.

Wouldn't save a nickel

Responding to Bond, Coburn said he was offended at the suggestion he had sacrificed meetings with his constituents to practice medicine.

"I'm listening to the people of Oklahoma," he said, adding that he had been in almost every county in the state since being elected and was trying to fulfill his campaign promise to reign in federal spending.

"This isn't a water treatment program. This is a sculpture park," Coburn said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D Wash., then calmly defended the sculpture park and said senators who voted to strip it out might have their own projects scrutinized.

Bond made a motion to postpone Coburn's proposals to kill projects in Washington, Nebraska and Rhode Island, and the Senate rebuked Coburn with a vote of 86-13.

Inhofe, who voted against Coburn's proposal, said later he respected what Coburn was trying to do, "but his amendment does not accomplish what he set out to achieve. Trying to pass an amendment to eliminate projects that senators from these respective states thought in the best interest of their constituents would not have saved one nickel."

After a brief afternoon break, Coburn started the battle again with an amendment to kill $75 million in funding for two controversial bridge projects in Alaska -- one dubbed "The Bridge to Nowhere." Coburn wanted to redirect the money to an Interstate 10 bridge in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina damaged.

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R Alaska, became enraged, shouting on the Senate floor that one state shouldn't be singled out to lose money that Congress had approved.

He said he would resign if the Senate voted to kill his state's bridge funding.

Inhofe, whose committee wrote the highway bill authorizing the Alaska bridge projects, stood to object to Coburn's amendment, reiterating that lawmakers should be able to judge what's good for their states.

Coburn's amendment went down 15 to 82.

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›