Mark Twain once tartly observed that congress was full of criminals. The truth is simultaneously less amusing and more disturbing: a majority in congress are myopic warriors, they zealously pursue short-term goals, while systematically ignoring, either out of ignorance or selfish ambition, the long-term consequences of their choices. Unfortunately the voters often reward these men and women with repeated trips to Washington D.C.
For almost a decade, however, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has been an exception to the aforementioned rule – he has regularly asked his colleagues to put the United State’s financial house in order. Regrettably Mr. Coburn plans to step down next January, two years before his term ends. As Oklahomans begin to decide which personal qualities are essential, and what animating ideas are indispensable, a five-pronged litmus test emerges.
Senator Coburn’s replacement must have a strong character. He or she must be committed to personal and public honesty. Committed, not due to expediency, but because honesty is a way of life. True political independence is also a prerequisite. A true independent (regardless of party affiliation), refuses to wantonly support the agenda of their own political party, or powerful interest groups. Instead, independent leaders are guided by firm principles that elicit acclaim or derision from party leaders and special interests. In short, the dog wags the tail.
An invaluable senator will also see the federal debt for what it is: an impending crisis. For decades a majority in congress, backed by willing presidents of both parties, spent more than the government collected in taxes. Consequently the US government is now 17 trillion dollars in debt. If this problem is overlooked much longer, if congress keeps spending uncontrollably, the necessary financial adjustments will hurt every American.
Similarly, the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program also threatens the United State’s future. Oklahoma’s next senator must not accept a system of electronic spies that would make J. Edgar Hoover proud; he or she must not embrace the notion that government surveillance is a national security issue, or another usefully divisive political issue. Warrant-less domestic spying is our Rubicon. Liberty will only remain healthy and intact if this abuse of government power is unequivocally rejected.
An open-minded Senator will also understand and accept the tide of history. Foreign policy adventures were common, and arguably even appropriate during the cold war. Today we live in a multi-polar world and countries that were once our childlike allies now desire to focus on new goals and modern alliances. America has been the world’s foster parent for over 100 years; maturing countries around the world must be allowed to leave the nest. Effective leaders must seek US interests through tough-but-fair relationships abroad – not by demonizing, meddling in, or invading countries that appear less enlightened.
Finally, realism about traditional social issues is likewise important. For decades social conservatives have sought to address controversial issues (e.g. abortion and gay marriage) through the constitutional amendment process. This strategy must be cast aside – polarizing constitutional alterations are rarely able to navigate the arduous amendment process. Hopefully Oklahoma’s next member of the senate will eschew lip service to an outworn battle plan, and instead consider creative 21st century methods of addressing these thorny issues.
Both political parties have powerful constituencies that are married to the accepted party orthodoxy. Therefore it seems likely that Democrat and Republican primary voters will embrace myopic party automatons. Yet all hope is not lost: in 2004 voters ignored the pundits and elected Dr. Coburn. This year Oklahomans have a chance to pick Mr. Coburn’s replacement; if the voters choose wisely, Oklahoma and the United States will benefit.