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SEN. TOM COBURN, R-OKLA.: Well, good morning, Chris.
WALLACE: I want to start with the lame duck session of Congress that you just finished. You blocked the Democratic omnibus spending bill, which had $8 billion in new earmarks.
On the other hand, Congress did pass that extension of tax cuts and also unemployment benefits, which adds another trillion dollars to the deficit. So my question is, did Congress get the message that voters were sending in the mid-term elections?
COBURN: I certainly don't believe that the lame duck Congress did. The omnibus would have spent -- raised the baseline about $40 billion when you take all the tricks out of it. When we wanted to have a stimulus program, but we don't want to get rid of the inefficient things that are not working in the federal government, and there is well over $300 billion a year, which I can lay out for you in detail that most Americans would agree we should eliminate.
We made an easy decision to pass the tax cuts and the unemployment compensation, as well as the decrease in Social Security payments. We didn't do the hard work. The hard work is eliminating the parts of the government that aren't working, that aren't effective, and also a lot of it that's not even in our constitutional role. WALLACE: Well, let me turn to 2011 and the new Congress. How much, realistically do you think the new Congress can cut in federal spending?
COBURN: I think that remains to be seen. We could certainly cut $100 to $200 billion and help ourselves. What most of America doesn't understand is if we don't put our house in order, we are going to look like Greece or Ireland or even Spain and Italy, which are coming, or even maybe ultimately Japan.
And so, time is of the essence for us. And you're seeing economists around the world starting to worry about whether or not we're going to make the substantive changes to austerity that we need to make in our country to correct our course and to create the confidence that we don't wind up like in Ireland.
WALLACE: Let's get more specific. We'll get to the debt situation, the economic situation in a minute, but let's talk about the job that Congress has.
You just released what you called "Waste Book 2010," in which you outline $11 billion in what you call wasteful spending, including some of those crazy earmarks like $5 billion for an neon sign museum in Las Vegas.
But Senator, for all the waste, if you are going to cut spending seriously, aren't you going to have to cut programs that Americans now rely on? Aren't you going to be calling on Americans to make some tough sacrifices?
COBURN: Absolutely. The problem that faces our country today, the last 30 years we have lived off the future, and the bill is coming due. So there cannot be anything that is not put on the table. There will not be one American that will not be called to sacrifice. Those that are more well-to-do will be called to sacrifice to a greater extent. But the fact is, if we all want a successful future for our kids, and we want to see a renewal in America's productivity and growth, we're going to have to make sacrifices. We've -- both the Republican and Democratic administrations have refused to do that. And we're at a time where we don't have the option anymore, and we need to make those decisions ourselves, rather than have those decisions forced upon us by the international financial community.
WALLACE: If I can, Senator, let's get a little specific. Give me the idea of some programs, because, of course, the dirty secret is everybody is opposed to government spending in general. But when it affects them, they like government spending for the programs that actually benefit them. Give me an idea, in your mind, not necessarily Congress is going to pass of a couple of specific programs you'd have to say aren't waste, but we simply can no longer afford?
COBURN: Well, first of all, we haven't even done the hard work of identifying all the duplications in the federal government. A year ago or two years ago, I asked the GAO to give me a report of all the government programs that are out there, so we could cross-reference which ones do the same thing. It's taken the GAO a year-and-a-half and they refused to do it until I put it in the last debt limit extension.
But for example, we could save about $50 billion a year by eliminating programs. I'll give you a couple of examples. We have 267 job training programs across 39 different agencies. Why do we have 267 of them?
We have 105 programs to encourage people to go into science and technology, engineering and math. That's 105 sets of bureaucrats. None of them have metrics on it. We have $100 billion at a minimum of fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. The healthcare bill didn't significantly address that. That is money that's just being blown away.
The Pentagon can't even audit its own books. It doesn't even know where its money is going. And we refuse to have the tough forces go on the Pentagon so that at least they are efficient with the money they're spending.
So we have a round-up of about $350 billion that will not truly impact anybody in this country that we could eliminate tomorrow.
WALLACE: Now you mentioned the magic phrase, "debt limit." The fact is that the continuing resolution, which Congress just passed, will fund the government until early March. That is about the time that we think the debt limit is going to come up.
And my question is, how tough are you and do you think your fellow Republicans willing to get to say to the Obama administration, look, if you want to increase the debt limit, if you want to keep this country from defaulting on its obligations, you're going to have to give us serious spending cuts?
COBURN: I'm not sure. I have spoken with the president, and he understands where we are with some of these issues. The question will be, will he help lead in making the hard choices?
And of course, most of the things that I've been talking about are discretionary spending. Will he help us fix the problems that have been created by new healthcare bill, and the underlying problems in healthcare is that it costs too much because there are no market forces controlling its cost?
My hope is that he gets out, holds hands with us, and we make some significant cuts. Some economists say that if we cut spending, it will hurt our recovery. Well, we just set up about $1 trillion to be spent in the economy over the next few years in terms of the stimulus. So I think there is no problem that we could cut $100 or $200 billion and start making a down payment and come to an agreement. There doesn't have to be a standoff. What there has to be is real leadership and recognizing the serious nature and the urgency of our problem.
WALLACE: Let's talk about that because I think it's fair to say you are an alarmist about debt. You talk about a, quote, "debt triggered apocalypse." You talk about the idea that if we don't do it, the international community is going to do it. You raise the comparison to Greece. Do you think the U.S. is headed to be another Greece?
COBURN: I do. I think within three to four years, if we have not done the critical changes that we have to make, I think the confidence in our economy and in our currency will be undermined significantly. And that may scare some folks. It's not intended to.
But the fact is we're living off our future, and everybody else in the world that's doing that today is getting punished. And what makes us think we can continue to do that? And so, if we send a signal to the rest of the international financial community that we are going to start down a road to austerity, we're going to start living within our means, we're going to decrease our spending, we are going to look at what the true role of the federal government is and try to limit our impact to that range, and we're going to eliminate programs that are not a priority.
Chris, the issue is not whether the government can do good things. It does great things. The question is what are the good things it can do and still afford to do it without doing significant harm? And what is happening in our country is we're not taking seriously the very real and urgent threat that will undermine the standard of living in this country.
And I agree. I told you the other evening that if we didn't take some pain now, we're going to experience apocalyptic pain, and it's going to be out of our control. The idea should be that we control it.
WALLACE: I was going to say, let's talk about that. You say you don't want to scare people. Go ahead and scare people, Senator. You scared me the other night when we happened to be at a dinner together.
WALLACE: How bleak do you think our financial and economic picture in this country will be over the next decade if we don't get serious about cutting spending?
COBURN: I think you'll see a 15 to 18 percent unemployment rate. I think you will see an 8 to 9 percent decline in GDP. I think you'll see the middle class just destroyed if we don't do this. And the people that it will harm the most will be the poorest of the poor, because we'll print money to try to debase our currency and get out of it and what you will see is hyperinflation. So we don't have a lot of options other than living within our means and sending the signal that creates confidence that we can repay our debt and that we're not going to debase our currency to do it.
WALLACE: I want to go back to your role earlier this year. Over the course of the last few months, you were a member of the president's debt commission, and you voted for the Bowles-Simpson debt commission plan which called for ending $1 trillion in tax deductions. As a result, you took some heat from normally a supporter of yours, Grover Norquist, who is the head of Americans for Tax Reform. He says the Democrats snookered you. And let me put up the quote. "When he [Coburn], puts his fingerprints, however fleetingly, on a trillion- dollar tax increase, he damages the Republican Party."
Senator, how do you plead?
COBURN: I plead that's the kind of language that causes us to not solve our problems. I don't care if you're rich or poor, liberal or conservative. If we don't fix the problems in front of us, everybody is going to pay a significant price. And the very fact that we have $1.1 trillion in tax expenditures every year that directs capital in a way that the government says it should be directed rather than the way it should be directed based on markets, tells us that we have a terrible tax system. And we need to reform our tax system and at the same time we need to eliminate a lot of the waste, fraud, abuse and duplication in the federal government.
And so, to have that debate and to say that hurts the Republicans, you know, I'm not in the Senate for the Republican Party. I'm in the Senate for America and for the future of our country. And if we are going to measure everything by Republican/Democrat, we're going to continue down this course that is going to result in our failure.
Chris, the history of republics is they average 200 years of life. And they all fail in the history over fiscal matters. They rot from within before they collapse or are attacked. And it's always over fiscal issues. And we need a wake-up call. We need real leadership, Democrat, Republican and independent to stand up and say, we have to live within our means. It means all of us will sacrifice. There is not a problem we can't solve if in fact we quit denying what the real problem is, and start working on it instead of playing politics with it.
So we need to go after what the real problems are, not the symptoms, and not pay attention to the naysayers on both the left and the right, and fix our country. And if we do, we have a wonderful future. If we don't, we have a bleak future.
WALLACE: I want to get into one last area with you. You have just won reelection, and as a believer in term limits, you have pledged that this six-year term that you are beginning now will be your last in the Senate. As a practical matter, what impact does that have? Will that free you to do things that you might not otherwise do if you were looking at a possibility of another term, still another term in the Senate?
COBURN: I don't think so. I think if you look at my first six years, you know, my goal is to do what I think is the best right thing for our country and to follow the Constitution. And so I had a fairly healthy winning percentage doing that, and I don't expect to change at all. I don't think it has anything to do with term limits. I think it has to do with what your core beliefs are and whether you're willing to stand up for them and take the heat.
Just like on the 9/11 bill this last week. I took all the heat, but we solved the problem and spent $7.2 billion less than we would have, and there is not going to be any difference in impact for the people we're trying to help.
WALLACE: And I just have to ask you, as one of these professional skeptics, if you suddenly made tremendous headway and you really were turning Washington around, come 2016, would you consider running for a third term? Are you saying I don't care, no way, no how, I made a pledge, I'm keeping it?
COBURN: No way, no how. I'll be through at the end of this term. And you know, I think that's really healthy for us. We have this assumption that only people who are dedicated to the life of public service can serve. And what the real problem is in Washington is we have people who don't have the breadth and depth of the experience of living outside of politics and coming and applying that breadth and depth to the very critical issues of our day. I would tell you I think that's why we're in the problems we're in, is that we have career politicians who have very limited experience making critical decisions for us. And what we need is real-world experienced people outside of politics to come and apply some common sense.
WALLACE: Well, and we should point out, Senator Coburn, that not only you are Senator Coburn, you are also Dr. Coburn, a medical doctor. Senator, doctor, we want to thank you so much for joining us on this Christmas weekend and happy New Year to you, sir.
COBURN: Happy New Year to you.
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