Charlie Rose Talks to Senator Tom Coburn

The Republican deficit hawk, physician, and author of The Debt Bomb talks about fixing America's finances while doing no harm
“We ought to be bending over backward with this president to solve this problem” Photograph by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

One of the surprising things about you is your friendship with the president. What do you talk about?
Oh, it’s everything from family or—when he’s getting a hard time that I think is undue, I’ll call him and encourage him. He’s just a friend. You can be polar opposites in terms of your political philosophy, but you can have a great relationship.
What should the central debate be in the coming election?
It’s fundamental: If you’re a college student today, one in two can’t get a job or is markedly underemployed. If you’ve got an IRA account, and we don’t solve these problems in a timely manner, that IRA account is not going to go anywhere near solving your retirement needs because we’re going to have inflation. You know, if you want your grandchildren to be able to go to college, that’s going to be an impossibility if things unwind, if we don’t act. I was asked about Secretary Geithner disputing what I say in this book about our risk of becoming Greece. But what everybody has to understand is, he can’t agree publicly with me on that issue.
Because of the impact he’d have on the markets?
If he says, “Yeah, that’s right,” guess what happens to our bonds tomorrow? But he also said, “We’re not going to have a debt downgrade.” And three weeks later we had a debt downgrade.
Standard & Poor’s cited political inaction as a principal reason for the downgrade, right?
As a doctor, I’m trained to look at disease. And in the political arena, the disease is all the symptoms that we see out there. So what’s the problem? The problem is lack of leadership.
In the executive branch? In the legislative branch?
Both sides. We ought to be bending over backward with this president to solve this problem before the election. You know, if we think about what could happen to us, if you look at what’s happening in Europe and what is going to happen in Japan …
How do you characterize Europe right now?
They can’t deleverage their debt. And their austerity program started too late … which makes the point Paul Krugman makes, which is, if you don’t have any growth and you have austerity, you’re going to be in a downward spiral.
You’ve got suggestions for trimming $9 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years, as well as theories on how we got into this mess.
We’ve lived for the last 30 years in this country off of the next 30. And the bill’s due. Remember, I’m suggesting what I see; I’ve done more oversight in the federal government than any other senator in the last 50 years. I’ve looked in more nooks and crannies. So you can take a trillion dollars out of the Pentagon. I’m a defense hawk. But every military man I’ve talked to, or woman, I say, “If you had to, could you get 10 to 15 percent out of your budget?” There hasn’t been one of them that hasn’t told me yes.
OK, that’s $1 trillion. Give me $8 trillion more.
Next you cut two and a half trillion from discretionary spending …
Discretionary spending’s too small. There isn’t that much to cut.
We have doubled the size of the federal government over the last 10 years in this country. And when people hear that, they can’t believe it. The biggest problems are entitlements. It’s $600 billion a year outside of the Pentagon. If you cut 20 percent, that’s $1.25 trillion.
And who suffers as a result?
Nobody. Let me give you an example. We have 47 job training programs, spend almost $19 billion a year, none of them work, all of them duplicate each other except for three, and we’re thinking about adding more.
Clearly, one of the things we need to do right now is train workers.
We’re spending $19 billion a year now not doing that. Think about Medicare, one of our prime programs for our seniors. If you look at it in terms of improper payments and fraud, it’s $100 billion a year. So cut two-thirds of that and you saved a trillion dollars in Medicare before you even touch the program.
Compare this to Ryan’s budget.
Well, the Ryan budget takes a much longer approach to this than I do. I’m not afraid to say, “We have to have a means test on Medicare.” The very wealthy are going to have to pay more of their share.


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