“I’ve got a flat forehead from beating my head against the wall,” he told voters during a town hall meeting in July 2010.
First elected to the U.S. House during the so-called Republican Revolution in 1994, Coburn fiercely criticized the use of federal money for special state projects and was among the few members of Congress who refused to seek such projects for their home states. He represented northeastern Oklahoma for three terms, but didn’t seek re-election in 2000 to keep a term-limit pledge.
He returned to his medical practice in Muskogee before asking voters to send him back to Washington, this time to the Senate, so he could fight big spenders and ensure “that our children and grandchildren have a future.” He won an open U.S. Senate seat in 2004, and easily won re-election in 2010. He left the Senate in 2016, after promising not to seek a third term.
As a senator, Coburn released a series of reports on what he described as wasteful government spending.
A 37-page report in 2011, dubbed “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous,” detailed nearly $30 billion spent annually in government subsidies, tax breaks and federal grant programs to millionaires.
“From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous,” Coburn wrote in the report.
A joint report in August 2010 by Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018, criticized stimulus spending, including $1.9 million for international ant research and $39.7 million to upgrade the Statehouse and political offices in Topeka, Kansas.
Coburn’s stubbornness and thwarting of legislation considered worthy by Democrats frustrated then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“You cannot negotiate with Coburn,” Reid, a Democrat, declared in 2008. “It’s just something you learn over the years is a waste of time.”
During debate over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Coburn was part of a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators who supported an alternative plan to cut the deficit by almost $4 trillion over the next decade through budget cuts and increased revenue through changes to the tax code.
Coburn also released a 614-page plan that outlined how the government could slash $9 trillion from the federal deficit over the next decade. Coburn’s suggestion led to the elimination of a federal tax subsidy for ethanol later that year.
In 2009, Coburn shrugged off some constituent complaints after the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, ran a front-page photograph showing him hugging then-President Barack Obama after Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress.
“I’m not aligned with him politically. I don’t know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about,” Coburn told the paper. “But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?”
Coburn said he and Obama had become friends during orientation as freshman senators in 2004.
Born in Casper, Wyoming, on March 14, 1948, Coburn grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. After graduating from Oklahoma State University, he went to work at his family’s business in Virginia, Ophthalmic Division of Coburn Opticals, from 1970 to 1978. He later attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma.
By the time he jumped into politics — a decision he said was based on runaway government spending and his distaste for career politicians — he was married to his wife, Carolyn, with three children and had established a successful medical practice.
While in the Senate, Coburn delivered babies for free after he was threatened with censure for violating Senate conflict-of-interest rules that prohibited him from receiving compensation for professional services.
Coburn had several health scares during his time in office. He was treated for malignant melanoma in 1975, and in 2011, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer.
But health woes didn’t seem to damper his contentious attitude. After revealing in 2003, for example, that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy, he told a Tulsa World reporter: “You should be writing about Medicaid and Medicare instead of my health.”