In recent weeks, Occupy Wall Street has thrown a spotlight on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Now, adding to the glare is a report released this past week by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

In “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous” Coburn exposes the ways in which millionaires use the social safety net as a luxury hammock:

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.  Multimillionaires are even receiving government checks for not working.  This welfare for the well-off – costing billions of dollars a year – is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate.

He is not out to “demonize those who are successful,” Coburn writes, but to expose the ways “the federal government lavishes these millionaires with billions of dollars in giveaways and tax breaks.”

These giveaways showered millionairesthat is, people who make over $1 million yearly in adjusted income—with $9 billion in Social Security benefits (the total from 2004 through 2009). In fact, in 2009, 1,430 people making $10 million or more received an average of $33,027 in Social Security benefits per recipient. Other payments they received include, for example, agricultural subsidies and unemployment insurance. In addition, the current tax code allowed the top 1 percent to deduct gambling losses, childcare expenses and mortgage interest on vacation homes, among others. Millionaires claim an annual average of $30 billion in tax credits and federal grants each year. Coburn reports that as a result of these tax breaks almost 1,500 millionaires paid no federal income tax in 2009.

These figures don’t take into account the $60 billion a year the Treasury would have received from them without the Bush-era tax cuts.

In the meantime, Coburn writes, the Great Recession has caused almost half of all American households to need some form of government assistance. According to government figures, more than 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, and this past August, close to 46 million received food stamps. “All told,” wrote the New York Times this weekend,”100 million people — one in three Americans — [are] either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

Coburn is steadfastly conservative on social issues, but on fiscal matters he leans somewhat to the left of his party. He has a history of identifying wasteful spending. Like his fellow Republicans he firmly opposes tax hikes, but he is almost alone in his fight against earmarks. Also known as pork, these are the projects that legislators tack onto bills to benefit a specific group of their constituents. It was Coburn that drew attention, for example, to the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” proposed by another Republican. The senator brandishes his axe on the excesses of Republicans and Democrats alike. His zeal has earned him the sobriquet of “Dr. No.”

Photo: Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call

As a medical doctor, Coburn has a stake in health care and has long been working to improve it. He wrote the bills passed by the House of Representatives that gave seniors better access to health care and legalized the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. On social issues, however, he is aligned with the extreme right of his party. He adamantly opposes abortion, advocating the death penalty for anybody who performs one. He is intensely anti-gay, having denounced the “rampant lesbianism” in southeastern Oklahoma. “The gay community is  the greatest threat to our freedom we face today,” Coburn told a group of Republicans.

The “super committee” charged with agreeing by Thanksgiving on an agenda to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion is said to be deadlocked. There is an unbridgeable gulf between Republicans who refuse to raise taxes and Democrats determined to protect the programs that maintain the social safety net.

Senator Coburn has stepped into the breach with his detailed analysis. We shouldn’t “pamper” the wealthy with “unnecessary welfare” paid by “the taxes of the less fortunate,” he writes. His proposals, if seriously considered by his party, could be a first step toward conciliation between the two sides.

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  • maximo hudson November 27, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Basically, Senator Coburn (R-OK) wants to cut back on Social Security, Medicare and alternative energy and conservation programs. He’s a Republican. So what’s new? Oh, that’s right he’s now expressing his desire to cut these programs in the language of the 99%. Well, it’s the same ol’ sweaty sandwich we was peddlin’ last week – and I’m not buying.

  • William Whiting November 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I hope Coburn can talk sense into his fellow obstinate republicans concerning fiscal matters – but be completely ignored when it comes to blocking progressive social reforms.

    Being fiscally wise while boasting socially regressive positions seems to be the only way any republican can appease their base and remain in power. Where are the politicians with both compassion for human diversity while retaining practical common sense? It doesn’t seem to exist much on either side of the aisle.