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Column: Coburn’s Campaign Against Government Waste

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is a real-life Murray Blum.

Blum, played by Charles Grodin, is the president’s accountant in the comedy Dave, which I think of every time we have one of these spending dramas in Washington. In my favorite scene in the movie, President Dave Kovic, played by Kevin Kline, asks Blum to the White House for a budget-cutting session. Kovic wants to find $650 million in the budget to rescue the first lady’s pet project, a homeless shelter. Blum breaks out some thick ledgers and a calculator, and they get to work. The homeless shelter is saved.

Yes, this is Hollywood, and yes, I realize that the U.S. government’s deficit can’t be erased by a couple of wonks pulling an all-nighter. But I confess to a weakness for the simple idea that the federal government shouldn’t waste money, and that calling attention to that waste is a valuable service.

In 2011 and again last year, the folks at the Government Accountability Office issued thick reports detailing the opportunities for the government to reduce waste and save money. Together, the reports run to more than 700 pages.

Coburn loves to cite these reports, and has his own tales to tell: of the thousands of federal housing administrators in Oklahoma, for example — including one for a town called Picher, which is a Superfund site and has been depopulated.

Add up all the programs like that and you end up with real money, Coburn says: about $364 billion. Even when his colleagues have the evidence in front of them that “one-third of what we do doesn’t accomplish what it’s supposed to,” Coburn says, they don’t vote to “kill a program but to add another on top of it.”

Coburn also goes after spending at the Pentagon, which he calls the “Department of Everything.” There is the $1.5 million for beef jerky development; or the 127 programs to encourage high-school students to learn science, technology, engineering and math; or the iPhone application that lets you know when it’s time for a coffee break. Cutting such programs could save almost $68 billion over 10 years.

The big money, of course, is in weapons programs. Coburn could save $18 billion over 10 years, he says, by cutting back and reorienting the Pentagon’s various jet-fighter contracts. The underlying problem with out-of-control defense spending, aside from contractors who don’t care what anything costs, is that everyone wants to add bells and whistles to any project and no one is willing to say no.

Coburn is. When he ran for Senate in 2004, he promised that he wouldn’t bring any pork home to Oklahoma. Pundits predicted he would be buried. Instead he won easily, and then won re-election in 2010 with more than 70 percent of the vote. He has a warm relationship with President Barack Obama, with whom he regularly speaks. Whenever the Senate forms one of its bipartisan gangs, be it of six or eight, he’s in it.

He’s a good gang member, he says, because he sees the Senate “as such a lonely place.” Coburn introduced himself to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who sends shudders down the spines of many of his colleagues, shortly after she arrived in January. They won’t see eye to eye on everything, but they agree that Congress needs to exercise more oversight. Coburn has also called on Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to find common ground on gun control. For that, he says, he got 15,000 calls from people back home who see Schumer as the devil incarnate.

Coburn isn’t the only member of the Senate with a bipartisan impulse, nor is he the only one who likes to issue reports about government waste. And calling attention to it is only half the battle, because one senator’s profligate spending is another’s vital investment.

But if Congress is going to tackle the nation’s long-term deficit — or agree on a way to end the current sequestration — it will take the efforts of members like Coburn. Coburn says he is retiring when his term ends in 2017, keeping his promise and satisfied he has done what he can, if not all he wanted.

What a Hollywood ending it would be if, before he leaves, during one of his meetings with the president, he pulled out those GAO reports, got a calculator and — whether they needed to stay up all night or not — got to work on finding the money to save a homeless shelter or two.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.