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Tom Coburn
Tom Coburn official portrait 112th Congress.jpg
United States Senator
from Oklahoma
In office
January 3, 2005 – January 3, 2015
Preceded by Don Nickles
Succeeded by James Lankford
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Oklahoma's 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1995 – January 3, 2001
Preceded by Mike Synar
Succeeded by Brad Carson
Personal details
Thomas Allen Coburn

(1948-03-14)March 14, 1948
Casper, Wyoming, U.S.
Died March 28, 2020(2020-03-28) (aged 72)
Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.
Political party Republican
Carolyn Denton
(m. 1968)
Children 3, including Sarah
Education Oklahoma State University–Stillwater (BS)
University of Oklahoma (MD)

Thomas Allen Coburn (March 14, 1948 – March 28, 2020) was an American politician and physician who served as a United States senator for Oklahoma from 2005, until his resignation in 2015. A Republican, he previously served as a United States representative.

Coburn was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution. He upheld his campaign pledge to serve no more than three consecutive terms and did not run for re-election in 2000. In 2004, he returned to political life with a successful run for the United States Senate. Coburn was re-elected to a second term in 2010 and kept his pledge not to seek a third term in 2016. In January 2014, Coburn announced he would resign before the expiration of his final term due to a recurrence of prostate cancer. He submitted a letter of resignation to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, effective at the end of the 113th Congress.

Coburn was a fiscal and social conservative. Described as "the godfather of the modern conservative austerity movement", he supported term limits, gun rights and the death penalty and opposed same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research. Many Democrats referred to him as "Dr. No" due to his frequent use of technicalities to block federal spending bills.

After leaving Congress, Coburn worked with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research on its efforts to reform the Food and Drug Administration, becoming a senior fellow of the institute in December 2016. Coburn also served as a senior advisor to Citizens for Self-Governance, where he was active in calling for a convention to propose amendments to the United States Constitution.

Early life, education, and medical career

Coburn was born in Casper, Wyoming, the son of Anita Joy (née Allen) and Orin Wesley Coburn. Coburn's father was an optician and founder of Coburn Optical Industries, and a named donor to O. W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University.

Coburn graduated with a B.S. in accounting from Oklahoma State University, where he was also a member of Sigma Nu fraternity. In 1968, he married Carolyn Denton, the 1967 Miss Oklahoma; their three daughters are Callie, Katie and Sarah, a leading operatic soprano. One of the top ten seniors in the School of Business, Coburn served as president of the College of Business Student Council.

From 1970 to 1978, Coburn served as a manufacturing manager at the Ophthalmic Division of Coburn Optical Industries in Colonial Heights, Virginia. While Coburn was manager, the Virginia division of Coburn Optical grew from 13 employees to over 350 and captured 35 percent of the U.S. market.

After recovering from an occurrence of malignant melanoma, Coburn pursued a medical degree and graduated from the University of Oklahoma Medical School with honors in 1983. He then opened Maternal & Family Practice in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and served as a deacon in a Southern Baptist Church. During his career in obstetrics, he treated over 15,000 patients, delivered 4,000 babies and was subject to one malpractice lawsuit, which was dismissed without finding Coburn at fault. Together Coburn and his wife were members of First Baptist Church of Muskogee.

Political career

House career

In 1994, Coburn ran for the House of Representatives in Oklahoma's 2nd congressional district, which was based in Muskogee and included 22 counties in northeastern Oklahoma. Coburn initially expected to face eight-term incumbent Mike Synar. However, Synar was defeated in a runoff for the Democratic nomination by a 71-year-old retired principal, Virgil Cooper. According to Coburn's 2003 book, Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders, Coburn and Cooper got along well, since both were opposed to the more liberal Synar. The general election was cordial since both men knew that Synar would not return to Washington regardless of the outcome. Coburn won by a 52%–48% margin, becoming the first Republican to represent the district since 1921.

Coburn was one of the most conservative members of the House.

Despite representing a heavily Democratic district and President Bill Clinton's electoral dominance therein, Coburn was reelected in 1996 and 1998.

In the House, Coburn earned a reputation as a political maverick due to his frequent battles with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Most of these stand-offs stemmed from his belief that the Republican caucus was moving toward the political center and away from the more conservative Contract With America policy proposals that had brought the Republicans into power in Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.

Coburn endorsed conservative activist and former diplomat Alan Keyes in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. Coburn retired from Congress in 2001, fulfilling his pledge to serve no more than three terms in the House. His congressional district returned to the Democratic fold, as attorney Brad Carson defeated Andy Ewing, a Republican endorsed by Coburn. After leaving the House and returning to private medical practice, Coburn wrote Breach of Trust, with ghostwriter John Hart, about his experiences in Congress. The book detailed Coburn's perspective on the internal Republican Party debates over the Contract With America and displayed his disdain for career politicians. Some of the figures he criticized (such as Gingrich) were already out of office at the time of the book's publishing, but others (such as former House Speaker Dennis Hastert) remained influential in Congress, which resulted in speculation that some congressional Republicans wanted no part of Coburn's return to politics.

During his tenure in the House, Coburn wrote and passed far-reaching pieces of legislation. These include laws to expand seniors' health care options, to protect access to home health care in rural areas and to allow Americans to access cheaper medications from Canada and other nations. Coburn also wrote a law intended to prevent the spread of AIDS to infants. The Wall Street Journal said about the law, "In 10 long years of AIDS politics and funding, this is actually the first legislation to pass in this country that will rescue babies." He also wrote a law to renew and reform federal AIDS care programs. In 2002, President George W. Bush chose Coburn to serve as co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA).

During his three terms in the House, Coburn also played an influential role in reforming welfare and other federal entitlement programs.

Senate career

After three years out of politics, Coburn announced his candidacy for the Senate seat being vacated by four-term incumbent Republican Don Nickles. Former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys (the favorite of the state and national Republican establishment) and Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony joined the field before Coburn. However, Coburn won the primary by an unexpectedly large margin, taking 61% of the vote to Humphreys's 25%. In the general election, he faced Brad Carson, the Democrat who had succeeded him in the 2nd District and was giving up his seat after only two terms.

In the election, Coburn won by a margin of 53% to Carson's 42%. While Carson routed Coburn in the generally heavily Democratic 2nd District, Coburn swamped Carson in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area and the closer-in Tulsa suburbs. Coburn won the state's two largest counties, Tulsa and Oklahoma, by a combined 86,000 votes, more than half of his overall margin of 166,000 votes cast.

Coburn's Senate voting record was as conservative as his House record.

Coburn was re-elected in 2010. He received 90% of the vote in the Republican primary and 70% in the general election. While he already planned on not seeking a third term in the Senate due to his self-imposed two-term term limit, on January 16, 2014, Coburn announced he would resign his office before his term ended at the end of the year due to his declining health.

On April 29, 2014, Coburn introduced the Insurance Capital Standards Clarification Act of 2014 (S. 2270; 113th Congress) into the Senate and it passed on June 3, 2014.

Use of Senate hold

Coburn used the Senate hold privilege to prevent several bills from coming to the Senate floor. Coburn earned a reputation for his use of this procedural mechanism. In November 2009 Coburn drew attention for placing a hold on a veterans benefits bill known as the Veterans' Caregiver and Omnibus Health Benefits Act. Coburn also placed a hold on a bill intended to help end hostilities in Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army.

On May 23, 2007, Coburn blocked two bills honoring the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson. Coburn called Carson's scientific work "junk science," proclaiming that Carson's landmark book Silent Spring was "the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT." Democratic Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland had intended to submit a resolution celebrating Carson for her "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility," but Coburn blocked it, saying that "the junk science and stigma surrounding DDT—the cheapest and most effective insecticide on the planet—have finally been jettisoned."

In response to Coburn's holds, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the Advancing America's Priorities Act, S. 3297, in July 2008. S. 3297 combined thirty-five bills which Coburn had blocked into what Democrats called the "Tomnibus" bill. The bill included health care provisions and several natural resources bills. The bill failed a cloture vote.

Coburn opposed parts of the legislation creating the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Area, which would add protections to wildlands in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Coburn exercised a hold on the legislation in both March and November 2008, and decried the required $10 million for surveying and mapping as wasteful. The Mount Hood bill would have been the largest amount of land added to federal protection since 1984.

In March 2009, those wilderness areas became protected under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which passed the Senate 73–21.

According to the Boston Globe, Coburn initially blocked passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), objecting to provisions in the bill that allow discrimination based on genetic information from embryos and fetuses. After the embryo loophole was closed, Coburn lifted his hold on the bill.

Coburn had initially blocked passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which would help to disarm the Lord's Resistance Army, a political group accused of human rights abuses. On March 9, 2010, Coburn lifted his hold on the LRA bill freeing it to move to the Senate floor after reaching a compromise regarding the funding of the bill, and an eleven-day protest outside of his office.

Whistleblower rights

Coburn was involved in the Bush Administration's struggle with Congress over whistleblower rights. In the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government employees who testify against their employers did not have protection from retaliation by their employers under the First Amendment of the Constitution. The free speech protections of the First Amendment have long been used to shield whistleblowers from retaliation.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the House passed H.R. 985, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007. Bush, citing national security concerns, promised to veto the bill should it be enacted into law by Congress. The Senate's version of the Whistleblower Protection Act (S. 274) was approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on June 13, 2007. However, that version failed to reach a vote by the Senate, as Coburn placed a hold on the bill; effectively preventing the passage of the bill, which had bipartisan support in the Senate.

Coburn's website features a news item about United Nations whistleblower Mathieu Credo Koumoin, a former employee for the U.N. Development Program in West Africa, who has asked U.N. ethics chief Robert Benson for protection under the U.N.'s new whistleblower protection rules. The site has a link to the "United Nations Watch" of the Republican Office of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, of which he was the ranking minority member. Coburn's website also features a tip line for potential whistleblowers on government waste and fraud.

Council on American–Islamic Relations

Coburn joined Congressmen Sue Myrick (R-NC), Trent Franks (R-AZ), John Shadegg (R-AZ), Paul Broun (R-GA) and Patrick McHenry (R-NC) in a letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman on November 16, 2009, asking that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) be investigated for excessive lobbying and failing to register as a lobbying organization. The request came in the wake of the publication of a book, Muslim Mafia, the foreword of which had been penned by Myrick, that portrayed CAIR as a subversive organization allied with international terrorists.

Criticism of the National Science Foundation

On May 26, 2011 Coburn released his 73-page report, "National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope", receiving immediate attention from such media outlets as The New York Times, Fox News and MSNBC.


Coburn was one of three senators who voted against the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (STOCK Act).

Committee assignments

Coburn was a member of the following committees:

  • Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (Ranking Member)
    • Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
    • Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight
    • Subcommittee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce
    • Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Affairs, and the District of Columbia
  • Select Committee on Intelligence
  • Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
    • Subcommittee on Economic Policy
    • Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment
    • Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development

Political positions

Fiscal conservatism

Coburn and Obama discuss S. 2590
Senators Coburn and Barack Obama discuss S. 2590 in 2006
Coburn and Obama greet Bush
Senators Coburn and Obama and Congressman Jeb Hensarling greet President George W. Bush at the signing ceremony of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006

The best-known of Coburn's amendments was an amendment to the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill that funds transportation projects. Coburn's amendment would have transferred funding from the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska to rebuild Louisiana's "Twin Spans" bridge, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The amendment was defeated in the Senate, 82–14, after Ted Stevens, the senior senator from Alaska, threatened to resign his office if the amendment were passed. Coburn's actions did result in getting the funds made into a more politically feasible block grant to the State of Alaska, which could use the funds for the bridge or other projects. The renovations for the Elizabethtown Amtrak Station were cited by Coburn as an example of pork barrel spending in the stimulus bill.

Coburn was also a member of the Fiscal Watch Team, a group of seven senators led by John McCain, whose stated goal was to combat "wasteful government spending."

On April 6, 2006, Coburn and Senators Barack Obama, Thomas Carper and John McCain introduced the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The bill requires the full disclosure of all entities and organizations receiving federal funds beginning in fiscal year (FY) 2007 on a website maintained by the Office of Management and Budget. The bill was signed into law on September 26, 2006.

Coburn and McCain noted that the practice of members of Congress adding earmarks had risen dramatically over the years, from 121 earmarks in 1987 to 15,268 earmarks in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In July 2007, Coburn criticized pork-barrel spending that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson had inserted into the 2007 defense spending bill. Coburn said that the earmarks would benefit Nelson's son Patrick's employer with millions in federal dollars and that the situation violated terms of the Transparency Act, which was passed by the Senate but had not yet been voted on in the House. Nelson's spokesperson said the Senator did nothing wrong. At that time, newspapers in Nebraska and Oklahoma noted that Coburn failed to criticize very similar earmarks that had benefited Oklahoma.

In 1997, Coburn introduced a bill called the HIV Prevention Act of 1997, which would have amended the Social Security Act. The bill would have required confidential notification of HIV exposure to the partners of those diagnosed with HIV, along with counseling and testing.

In 2010, Coburn called for a freeze on defense spending. The following year, along with Democratic Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, he introduced a bill to "get rid of the most venerable big ethanol subsidy: the blenders tax credit." Coburn served on the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction commission in 2010 and was one of the only Republicans in Congress open to tax increases as a means of balancing the budget.

In 2011 Coburn broke with Americans for Tax Reform with an ethanol amendment that gathered 70 votes in the Senate. He said that anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's influence was overstated, and that revenue increases were needed in order to "fix the country."

In 2012, Coburn identified less than $7 billion a year in possible defense savings and over half of these savings were to be through the elimination of military personnel involved in supply, transportation, and communications services.

In May 2013, after tornadoes ripped through his state, Coburn said that any new funding allocated for disaster relief needed to be offset by cuts to other federal spending.

Coburn was a fierce critic of the plan to attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act by shutting down the federal government, saying that the strategy was "doomed to fail" and that Ted Cruz and others who supported the plan had a "short-term goal with lousy tactics".

Gun rights

In regards to the Second Amendment, Coburn believed that it "recognizes the right of individual, law-abiding citizens to own and use firearms," and he opposed "any and all efforts to mandate gun control on law-abiding citizens." On the Credit CARD Act of 2009, which aimed "to establish fair and transparent practices relating to the extension of credit under an open-end consumer credit plan and for other purposes," Coburn sponsored an amendment that would allow concealed carry of firearms in national parks. The Senate passed the amendment 67–29.

Coburn placed a hold on final Senate consideration of a measure passed by the House in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings to improve state performance in checking the federal watch list of gun buyers. However, after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Coburn (who had already announced he would not run for re-election) reversed himself and came out in support of universal background checks. Coburn partnered with Democratic members of the Senate such as Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin (to whose re-election campaign Coburn donated money) to determine what a universal background check measure should look like. However, these talks ultimately broke down, and in April 2013, Coburn was one of 46 senators to vote against the amendment in its final form, defeating its passage.

Health care reform

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland
Senator Coburn at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland

Coburn voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in December 2009, and against the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

Coburn co-authored the Patients Choice Act of 2009 (S. 1099), a Republican plan for health care reform in the United States, which in part 1) Requires the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to convene an interagency coordinating committee to develop a national strategic plan for prevention. The act provided for health promotion and disease prevention activities consistent with such a plan. Secondly it set forth provisions governing the establishment and operation of state-based health care exchanges to facilitate the individual purchase of private health insurance and the creation of a market where private health plans compete for enrollees based on price and quality. Thirdly it intended to amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow a refundable tax credit for qualified health care insurance coverage. Fourth it sets forth programs to prevent Medicare fraud and abuse, including ending the use of social security numbers to identify Medicare beneficiaries. Fifth it sought to terminate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Presidential nominations to the Judicial and Executive branches of government

During the administration of President George W. Bush, Coburn spoke out against the threat by some Democrats to filibuster nominations to judicial and Executive Branch positions. He took the position that no presidential nomination should ever be filibustered, in light of the wording of the U.S. Constitution. Coburn said, "There is a defined charge to the president and the Senate on advice and consent."

In May 2009, Coburn was the only Senator to vote against the confirmation of Gil Kerlikowske as the Director of the National Drug Control Policy.

Same-sex marriage

Coburn opposed same-sex marriage. In 2006, he voted in support of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it.

War in Iraq

On May 24, 2007, the U.S. Senate voted 80–14 to fund the war in Iraq, which included U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, 2007. Coburn voted nay. On October 1, 2007, the Senate voted 92–3 to fund the war in Iraq. Coburn voted nay. In February 2008, Coburn said, "I will tell you personally that I think it was probably a mistake going to Iraq."

Post-Senate career

After resigning from the U.S. Senate, Coburn joined Citizens for Self-Governance as a senior advisor to the group's Convention of States project, which seeks to convene a convention to propose amendments to the United States Constitution. In 2017, he authored a book on the subject titled Smashing the DC Monopoly: Using Article V to Restore Freedom and Stop Runaway Government.

Coburn was affiliated with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, consulting on the institute's Project FDA, an effort to promote faster drug approval processes. He also sat on the board of the Benjamin Rush Institute, a conservative association of medical students across 20 medical schools. In 2016, he became a Manhattan Institute senior fellow.


In 2013, Coburn received the U.S. Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an award given out annually by the Jefferson Awards.

Personal life

Despite their stark ideological differences, Coburn was a close friend of President Barack Obama. Their friendship began in 2005 when they both arrived in the Senate at the same time. They worked together on political ethics reform legislation, to set up an online federal spending database and to crack down on no-bid contracting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In April 2011, Coburn spoke to Bloomberg TV about Obama, saying, "I love the man. I think he's a neat man. I don't want him to be president, but I still love him. He is our President. He's my President. And I disagree with him adamantly on 95% of the issues, but that doesn't mean I can't have a great relationship. And that's a model people ought to follow."

Before the 2009 BCS game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Florida Gators, Coburn made a bet over the outcome of the game with Florida Senator Bill Nelson—the loser had to serenade the winner with a song. The Gators defeated the Sooners and Coburn sang Elton John's "Rocket Man" to Nelson, who had once flown into space.

Illness and death

In November 2013, Coburn made public that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2011, he had prostate cancer surgery while also surviving colon cancer and melanoma. The results caused Coburn to resign from the senate in 2014.

Coburn died at his home in Tulsa on March 28, 2020, exactly two weeks after his 72nd birthday. A memorial service to honor his life was held a year later on May 1, 2021, at South Tulsa Baptist Church.

Electoral history

Oklahoma's 2nd congressional district: Results 1994–1998
Year Democratic Votes Pct Republican Votes Pct 3rd Party Party Votes Pct
1994 Virgil R. Cooper 75,943 48% Tom A. Coburn 82,479 52%
1996 Glen D. Johnson 90,120 45% Tom A. Coburn 112,273 55%
1998 Kent Pharaoh 59,042 40% Tom A. Coburn 85,581 58% Albert Jones Independent 3,641 2%
Oklahoma Senator (Class III) results: 2004–2010
Year Democratic Votes Pct Republican Votes Pct 3rd Party Party Votes Pct 3rd Party Party Votes Pct
2004 Brad Carson 596,750 41% Tom A. Coburn 763,433 53% Sheila Bilyeu Independent 86,663 6%
2010 Jim Rogers 265,519 26% Tom A. Coburn 716,347 71% Stephen Wallace Independent 25,048 2% Ronald Dwyer Independent 7,807 1%


  • Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders. Nashville: WND Books. 2003. ISBN 9780785262206. (with John Hart)
  • The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2012. ISBN 978-1595554673. (with John Hart)
  • Smashing the DC Monopoly: Using Article V to Restore Freedom and Stop Runaway Government. WND Books. 2017. ISBN 9781944229757.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Tom Coburn para niños

  • Physicians in the United States Congress
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