Coburn Channels Failed Tenther Candidates Who Claim Department of Education Is Unconstitutional

Last month’s election was unquestionably a good day for the right, but tenther Senate candidates — those who believe that pretty much everything the federal government does is unconstitutional — massively underperformed. As it turns out, even November’s disgruntled electorate wasn’t interested in radical tenthers like Sharron Angle (R-NV) or Ken Buck (R-CO) who think that Pell Grants, student loan assistance and other federal support for education somehow violates the Constitution. Yet, despite the thumping delivered to the right’s tenther wing last month, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is apparently eager to pick up where Angle and Buck left off. In an interview with right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham, Coburn endorses the radical view that federal education programs violate the Constitution:

I don’t even think [education] is a role for the federal government, if you read the Constitution. Matter of fact, Thomas Jefferson said “I believe in the federal government having a role for education but the only way you can do that is change the Constitution.” That’s a direct quote from him. In other words, he recognized that it wasn’t in the Constitution for the federal government to have a role in education. And now we have more debt for student loans than we have credit card debt in this country.


Sen. Coburn might want to try actually read the Constitution before he pretends to know what it allows. Article I provides that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” a grant of power that unambiguously empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them on programs that are broadly beneficial to American welfare — such as education.

Moreover, while Coburn’s reference to Thomas Jefferson is true in the narrowest sense of the term, it also betrays Coburn’s ignorance of constitutional history. During the Washington Administration, Jefferson and James Madison led a minority coalition which believed that Congress’ constitutional power to spend money was too narrow to support spending programs such as the First Bank of the United States. President Washington, however, rejected their arguments. Moreover, while Coburn is correct that President Jefferson briefly referenced his narrow view of the Constitution in his 1806 State of the Union, Jefferson was an extreme outlier by this point in American history. Even Madison parted ways with Jefferson by the time Madison became president in 1809.

Nor is Coburn’s command of basic economics any better than his grasp on the Constitution and its history. Coburn is right to be upset that “debt for student loans” has skyrocketed in recent years, but his prescription for addressing this problem — eliminating Pell Grants and low-interest government loans — would obviously make the problem even worse.