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Tom Coburn, the Senate’s “Dr. No,” has died at 72

The former Oklahoma senator’s political career was defined by his refusal to support wasteful government spending.

Sen. Tom Coburn, in 2013.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

Thomas Coburn, Oklahoma politician and physician, died Saturday after a years-long battle with cancer. He was 72.

Coburn, a Republican who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate, was best known as a staunch fiscal conservative who hated and highlighted excess government spending. He refused to support bills that included what he saw as an abuse of taxpayer money, rarely backing down from those convictions even when they went against his own party, and did everything in his power to block them.

He became known as “Dr. No,” a moniker he earned up until the very end of his tenure, when he blocked one bill to fund suicide prevention programs for military veterans and another to renew the Terrorism Insurance Program, which would bail out insurance companies if they were unable to pay a flood of claims following a 9/11-like terrorist attack (both bills were passed a few weeks later, after Coburn left office).

“I am not a go-along, get-along guy if I think it is the wrong way to go,” Coburn told the New York Times in 2008. “I am O.K. taking the consternation of my colleagues. I take my oath seriously.”

Transparency was part of Coburn’s campaign against government waste. In 2006, he worked with John McCain and two Democratic senators — Tom Carper and Barack Obama — on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which created a public online database of entities that received government funds. That database can be found at He also put out an annual “Wastebook” listing of what he judged to be the 100 most wasteful uses of taxpayer money.

Coburn was also Dr. No when it came to gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, affirmative action, and global warming, voting and/or speaking out against such progressive policies throughout his political career. He voted for a congressional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2006 and was a self-professed “global warming denier.” He was against abortion except in cases where the life of the mother was in danger — in fact, according to the Oklahoman, he had performed two procedures as an obstetrician.

Coburn was born in Wyoming on March 14, 1948, and grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. After college, he worked for his father’s ophthalmic equipment company for several years, then went to medical school. He graduated in 1983 and opened up his own family and obstetrics practice, where he said he delivered more than 4,000 babies. He continued to see patients while serving as a representative and a senator, either at cost or free of charge to get around conflict of interest rules. He was also a Southern Baptist church deacon.

A political outsider, Coburn ran for Congress in 1994 and was an unlikely winner. A proponent of term limits who decried career politicians, he said he would only serve for three terms and refused to seek re-election in 2001. In 2004, not thrilled with the Republicans vying for an open Senate seat, he entered the race. He served from 2005 until 2015. He ended his second term two years early after his prostate cancer, for which he was treated in 2011, returned — though he insisted his health was not why he stepped down. This was Coburn’s fourth bout with cancer; he also had melanoma in 1975 and colon cancer in 2003.

In one of his last speeches on the Senate floor, Coburn defended the sometimes lonely crusade that defined his political career.

“The most important number in the Senate is one,” Coburn said. “One senator. That’s how it was set up. That’s how our founders designed it. And with that comes tremendous amounts of responsibility, because the Senate has a set of rules — or at least, did — that gives each individual member the power to advance, change, or stop legislation.”

Coburn is survived by his wife, three daughters, and nine grandchildren.

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