The Presidential Debate and Senator Coburn as a Potential Accountability & Transparency Czar

10/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In their first Presidential Debate, both Senators Obama and McCain spoke about their close working relationships with US Senator Tom Coburn, one of only two medical doctors in the Senate, and widely regarded as the undisputed leader on accountability and transparency. Sen. Obama highlighted the Obama-Coburn "Google for Government" bill that became law, and has resulted in a database of federal contracts and grants.

Over the past year, since I joined hands with Senator Coburn and his senior staff on a Congressional Event and follow-up on vaccines for reducing a major contributor to maternal mortality that is causing 500,000 deaths worldwide every year, as well as is the major bacterial cause of painful and debilitating pelvic inflammatory disease, and the bacterium that is the largest cause of preventable blindness in the world via blinding trachoma and a co-factor for HIV transmission, I can attest to his ebullient passion for helping people. Indeed, Senator Coburn becomes Dr. Coburn, family physician, every weekend when he goes back to Oklahoma to take care of his patients, in despite of being asked to give up his medical practice by Senate puritans worried about seemingly irrelevant and archaic senate rules.

Yet Senator Coburn is often misunderstood and is regularly hauled over the coals by the media because, while he cares deeply about the health of women and children and being a twice-cancer survivor himself, his often laser-focus on accountability and the enormity of the $9.4 trillion public debt-- and therefore his objection to inefficiency within spending bills-- is flippantly portrayed as a lack of compassion. The legislative process crafted for the 18th century generally does not permit course corrections -- only outright opposition because amendments, even when passed unanimously, are simply taken out of bills in the name of "house-senate conference."

However, Coburn uses the "hold" power that each Senator has, that provides for a single Senator to stall a bill, more frequently than anyone else in the Senate. He carries in his jacket an entire list of bills he has put on "hold" so that he can discuss them with agencies concerned and attempt to negotiate changes. As he was one of those who enabled the invention, production and distribution of an intra-ocular lens and was a prominent businessman himself before going on to medical school later in life, Sen. Coburn can rapidly see through the "spin" and deception that often pervades policy-making and spending on domestic and international issues. His insights, background in medicine and business coupled with insistence on accountability have enabled him to campaign for greater transparency, accountability and efficiency at the World Bank and the W.H.O. through his Federal Financial Management subcommittee on which he is the Ranking Republican. If those are ensured, Senator Coburn has indicated his keen interest and support for greater international development efforts.

The Public's Contribution to Oversight
At a recent meeting with Senator Coburn, I and Scot Faulkner, the first chief administrative officer of the US House of Representatives, discussed having the public contribute to oversight through the web, by submitting pressing questions, highlighting key issues, and in effect, engaging in investigative journalism through dedicated web resources. Those would go above and beyond the purview and scope of Congressional committee and subcommittee web sites. Senator Coburn expressed his support. Indications from the Congressional negotiators are that the $700 billion bailout will have, despite objections by the current administration, oversight written into the law. Indeed, Senator McCain suggested a few individuals like Warren Buffet, Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney to form an oversight board to perform the task for Congress. But can a few luminaries like Warren Buffet dedicate sufficient time and attention to oversight? Proper oversight is a time-intensive, strenuous process involving skills in accounting, finance, political economy, institutional management, along with the passion that is sometimes missing.

Senator Coburn as Potential Oversight Czar
The agreement between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain on the value of Sen. Coburn, potentially to monitor and find waste and abuse in the 3 trillion dollars of Federal spending every year gives an opening to both Presidential candidates, whoever wins, to appoint Senator Coburn to the position of oversight czar. But it is not only to find waste and abuse, but especially to empower course corrections in programs so that they can contribute to the US and also to global development. Oversight over the $700 billion bailout could be another key area. However, an oversight czar and dedicated staff, by themselves, cannot accomplish the goal. It will also require the cooperation of committed people throughout the country and indeed around the world. Only well-formulated specialized blogs with dedicated and passionate people behind them when combined with the 18th century version of oversight, that we often see, can enable oversight success in this electronic age.