Tom Coburn, U.S. Senator

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Thomas Allen "Tom" Coburn

Birthplace: Casper, Natrona, WY, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Orin Wesley Coburn and Anita Joy Coburn

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Tom Coburn, U.S. Senator

Thomas Allen "Tom" Coburn (born March 14, 1948) is an American politician and medical doctor. A member of the Republican Party, he was the junior United States Senator from Oklahoma.

Coburn was elected to the U.S. 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 office with a successful run for the U.S. Senate. Coburn was re-elected to a second term in 2010 and pledged not to seek a third term in 2016. In January, 2014, Coburn announced he would retire before the natural expiration of his final term. He submitted an irrevocable letter of resignation to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, effective at the end of the 113th Congress.

Coburn is a fiscal and social conservative, known for his opposition to deficit spending and pork barrel projects and for his leadership in the pro-life movement. Described as the "godfather of the modern conservative, austerity movement", he supports term limits, gun rights and the death penalty and opposes LGBT rights and embryonic stem cell research. Democrats, creating a "Tomnibus" bill containing thirty-five unrelated measures he has blocked, have called him "Dr. No."

Personal life 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 named donor to O. W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University, dedicated in 1979 and closed in 1985.

Tom 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 manufacturing manager at the Ophthalmic Division of Coburn Optical Industries in Colonial Heights, Virginia. Under his leadership, the Virginia division of Coburn Optical grew from 13 employees to more than 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 a medical practice in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and served as a deacon in a Southern Baptist Church. Coburn is one of two medical doctors currently serving in the U.S. Senate. During his career in obstetrics, he has treated over 15,000 patients and delivered 4,000 babies, and was subject to one malpractice lawsuit, which was dismissed without finding Coburn at fault. Coburn and his wife are members of First Baptist Church of Muskogee.

In spite of their ideological differences, Coburn is a friend of President Barack Obama. They became friends in 2005 when they both arrived in the Senate at the same time.

Political career

House career

In 1994, Coburn ran for the House of Representatives in Oklahoma's Democratic 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. He supported "reducing the size of the federal budget," wanted to make abortion illegal, and supported the proposed television V-chip legislation.

Despite representing a heavily Democratic district, and President Bill Clinton's electoral dominance therein, Coburn was easily reelected in 1996, as well as in 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 easily defeated 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 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 President's 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

In 2004, Coburn chose to challenge the establishment Republican candidate for the open Senate seat being vacated by 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 easily won the primary with 61% of the vote to Humphreys's 25%. In the general election, he faced Brad Carson, a 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 heavily Democratic 2nd District generally, 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.[citation needed]

Coburn's Senate voting record is 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. Coburn has announced that he will stick to his term limits pledge and retire from the Senate in 2016.

Committee assignments

Political positions

Health care reform

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 purported to 1) prevent disease and promote healthier lifestyles, 2) create affordable and accessible health insurance options, 3) equalize the tax treatment of health care, 4) modernize the Medicaid and Medicare beneficiary choice, 5) ensure compensation for injured patients, and 6) establish transparency in health care price and quality.

Iraq War appropriations

On May 24, 2007, the US Senate voted 80–14 to fund the war in Iraq. 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."


Coburn opposes abortion, with the exception of abortions necessary to save the mother. In 2000 he sponsored a bill to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from developing, testing, or approving the abortifacient RU-486. On July 13, the bill failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 182 to 187. On the issue, Coburn sparked controversy with his remark, "I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life." He noted that his great-grandmother was raped by a sheriff, and in the Senate confirmation hearings concerning Samuel Alito, said his grandmother was a product of that rape.

Coburn was "one of the original authors" of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act upheld by the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart. The act relied on a "very expansive view" of the Constitution's Commerce Clause, as it applies to "any physician who, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, knowingly performs a partial-birth abortion." The Act's reliance on such a broad reading of the Commerce Clause was criticized by Independence Institute scholar David Kopel and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, who noted that "[u]nless a physician is operating a mobile abortion clinic on the Metroliner, it is not really possible to perform an abortion 'in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce.'" When Coburn later called Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan "ignorant" due to her "very expansive view" of the Commerce Clause, his support for the Act was used to suggest his hypocrisy on the issue.

On September 14, 2005, during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, Coburn began his opening statement with a critique of Beltway partisan politics while, according to news reports, "choking back a sob." Coburn had earlier been completing a crossword puzzle during the hearings, and this fact was used by "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" to ridicule Coburn's pathos. Coburn then began his questioning by discussing the various legal terms mentioned during the previous day's hearings. Proceeding to questions regarding both abortion and end-of-life issues, Coburn, who noted that during his tenure as an obstetrician he had delivered some 4,000 babies, asked Roberts whether the judge agreed with the proposition that "the opposite of being dead is being alive."

“You know I'm going somewhere. One of the problems I have is coming up with just the common sense and logic that if brain wave and heartbeat signifies life, the absence of them signifies death, then the presence of them certainly signifies life. And to say it otherwise, logically is schizophrenic. And that's how I view a lot of the decisions that have come from the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion”

Fiscal conservatism

Coburn made several attempts in 2005 to combat pork barrel spending in the federal budget. The best-known of these 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 can use the funds for the bridge or other projects.

Coburn is also a member of the Fiscal Watch Team, a group of seven senators led by John McCain, whose stated goal is 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 has 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 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 sexual partners of those diagnosed with HIV, along with counseling and testing. The bill was endorsed by the American Medical Association and had over 100 co-sponsors. Coburn also offered an amendment that would have prohibited insurance companies from discriminating against someone who was tested for HIV, regardless of the result, and introduced a bill to expand AIDS coverage for those enrolled in Medicare. He was the primary House sponsor of the 2000 Ryan White CARE Act re-authorization that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

In 2010, Coburn called for 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."

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

Presidential nominations

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 confirmation of Gil Kerlikowske as the Director of the National Drug Control Policy.


Coburn has said tobacco should not have additional regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in addition to the current Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) oversight. "Tom Coburn is consistent in his free market philosophy and in his strict reading of what Congress can and can't do," according to the Tulsa World and other sources.

Gun rights

Regarding the Second Amendment, Coburn believes that it "recognizes the right of individual, law-abiding citizens to own and use firearms," and he opposes "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 weapons in national parks. The Senate passed the amendment 67-29.


Coburn was involved in the Bush Administration's struggle with Congress over whistleblower rights. In the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, the 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.[49] 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, it has yet to reach a vote by the Senate, as Coburn placed a hold on the bill; this effectively prevents passage of the bill, which has 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 is the ranking minority member. Coburn's website also features a tip line for potential whistleblowers on government waste and fraud.

Allegations of non-consensual sterilization and Medicaid fraud

A sterilization Coburn performed on a 20-year-old woman, Angela Plummer, in 1990 became what was called "the most incendiary issue" of his Senate campaign. Coburn performed the sterilization on the woman during an emergency surgery to treat a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, removing her intact fallopian tube as well as the one damaged by the surgery. The woman sued Coburn, alleging that he did not have consent to sterilize her, while Coburn claimed he had her oral consent. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed with no finding of liability on Coburn's part.

The state attorney general claimed that Coburn committed Medicaid fraud by not reporting the sterilization when he filed a claim for the emergency surgery. Medicaid did not reimburse doctors for sterilization procedures for patients under 21, and according to the attorney general, Coburn would not have been reimbursed at all had he not withheld this information. Coburn says since he did not file a claim for the sterilization, no fraud was committed. No charges were filed against Coburn for this claim.

"Schindler's List" TV broadcast

As a congressman in 1997, Coburn protested NBC's plan to air the R-rated Academy Award-winning Holocaust drama Schindler's List during prime time. Coburn stated that, in airing the movie without editing it for television, TV had been taken "to an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity." He also said the TV broadcast should outrage parents and decent-minded individuals everywhere. Coburn described the airing of Schindler's List on television as "irresponsible sexual behavior. I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program."

This statement met with strong criticism, as the film deals mainly with the Holocaust. After heavy criticism, Coburn apologized "to all those I have offended" and clarified that he agreed with the movie being aired on television, but stated that it should have been on later in the evening. In apologizing, Coburn said that at that time of the evening there are still large numbers of children watching without parental supervision, and stated that he stood by his message of protecting children from violence, but had expressed it poorly. He also said, "My intentions were good, but I've obviously made an error in judgment in how I've gone about saying what I wanted to say."

He later wrote in Breach of Trust that he considered this one of the biggest mistakes in his life and that, while he still feels the material was unsuitable for an 8PM television broadcast, he handled the situation poorly.

Use of Senatorial 'hold' privilege

Coburn has used the special hold privilege to prevent several bills from coming to the Senate floor. The hold privilege is allowed by Rule VII of the Senate Standing Rules. The practice is generally used to form consensus on questionable legislation and has come under fire for its procedural secrecy. Coburn has actively exercised the privilege, and has earned a reputation for his use of the procedural mechanism. For example, in November 2009 Coburn drew considerable attention for placing a hold on a veterans' benefits bill known as the Veterans’ Caregiver and Omnibus Health Benefits Act. Coburn has also placed a hold on a bill whose goal is to help end hostilities in Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army.

Rachel Carson commemoration

On May 23, 2007, Coburn threatened to block two bills honoring the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson. Coburn called Carson's work "junk science," proclaiming that Silent Spring "was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT."

Advancing America's Priorities Act

In response to Coburn's repeated holds on legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the Advancing America's Priorities Act, S. 3297, in July 2008. S. 3297 combined several bills which Coburn had blocked into what became known as a "Tomnibus" bill, a reference to omnibus bills used to combine several individual bills into one piece of legislation. The bill included health care provisions, new penalties for child pornography, and several natural resources bills. However, it failed to achieve cloture.

Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act

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 one-vote 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.

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

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 embryo loophole was closed,[86] Coburn lifted his hold on the bill.

LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act

Coburn was previously blocking 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.

Affiliation with The Family and John Ensign

Coburn is affiliated with a religious organization called The Family. Coburn previously lived in one of the Family's Washington, D.C. dormitories with then-Senator John Ensign, another Family member and longtime resident of the C Street Center who admitted he had an extramarital affair with a staffer in 2009. The announcement by Ensign of his infidelity brought public scrutiny of the Family and its connection to other high-ranking politicians, including Coburn.

Coburn, together with senior members of the Family, attempted to intervene to end Ensign's affair in February 2008, prior to the affair becoming public, including by meeting with the husband of Ensign's mistress and encouraging Ensign to write a letter to his mistress breaking off the affair. Ensign was driven to Federal Express from C Street Center to post the letter, shortly after which Ensign called to tell his mistress to ignore it.

Coburn refuses to speak about his involvement in Ensign's affair or his knowledge of the affair well before it became public, asserting legal privilege due to his separate statuses as a licensed physician in the State of Oklahoma and an ordained deacon.

In October 2009, Coburn did make a statement to the New York Times about Ensign's affair and cover-up: "John got trapped doing something really stupid and then made a lot of other mistakes afterward. Judgment gets impaired by arrogance, and that's what's going on here."

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.

National Science Foundation criticism

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.

Stock Act

Coburn was among the three senators who voted against the Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) act. The other votes against the bill were cast by Senators Richard M. Burr (R) of North Carolina and Mr. Grassley (R).

On Feb 03, 2012, Coburn released the following statement regarding the STOCK Act. “It’s disappointing the Senate spent a week debating a bill that duplicates existing law and fails to address the real problems facing the country. The only way we can restore confidence in Congress is to make hard choices and solve real problems by doing things like reforming our tax code, repairing our safety net and reducing our crushing debt burden. Doing anything less will further alienate the American people, and rightfully so.”


Coburn and Barack Obama are personally friendly and have 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."

Prior to 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.

Involvement in Ensign scandal

In May 2011, the Senate Ethics Committee identified Coburn in their report on the ethics violations of Senator John Ensign. The report stated that Coburn knew about Ensign's extramarital affair and was involved in trying to negotiate a financial settlement to cover it up.

Electoral history

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Tom Coburn, U.S. Senator's Timeline

March 14, 1948
Casper, Natrona, WY, United States