The Senate Ethics Committee ought to rethink its decision and give Dr. Coburn the flexibility he needs.

The Right Medicine for the Senate

When those who wrote our founding documents and crafted our constitutional system contemplated the Congress, they envisioned a group of citizens assembling for brief periods a few times a year to do the nation’s business. When members of Congress weren’t in Washington, they would be at home, minding their own trades, professions and businesses.

Today, this seems like a quaint fantasy.

Indeed, serving in the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives has become a full-time job, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. To be sure, full-time Senators and Representatives can totally dedicate themselves to the people’s business. They have more time to learn about and understand the issues that they deal with every day.

Nevertheless, by creating and empowering a profession of “lawmakers,” we shouldn’t be surprised when they constantly engage themselves in making new laws, many of which involve subjects that don’t warrant attention from our national government.

In addition, because our representatives work full time in Washington, they spend less at home interacting with, talking to and hearing from the people that they represent ― us. It also means more time for them to be sitting around the Capitol talking to each other, cooking up ideas for more laws to make.

The inevitable result is an expansion of the size, scope and influence of government. Hence, in an era where government is intruding more and more into our lives, the country could benefit from more citizen legislators and fewer full-time politicians.

Enter Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.

Coburn, an OB/GYN, was first elected to the Senate in 2004 after earlier serving three terms in House of Representatives. (He retired from the House to keep a self-imposed term limits pledge.) Throughout his House service, Coburn went home to Oklahoma to continue seeing patients and delivering babies on Fridays, weekends and Mondays. He viewed it as important to continue aiding his patients and interacting with the people who elected him

In order to maintain his medical practice while serving in the House, however, Coburn requested and received a special dispensation from the House Ethics Committee. You see, in the name of preventing conflicts of interest, both the Senate and the House have ethics rules prohibiting members from holding jobs outside of Congress. Fortunately, the House Ethics Committee agreed to allow the doctor to continue practicing medicine as long as his fees only covered his expenses and left him nothing extra.

Last fall, as Coburn campaigned for Senate, he promised the people of Oklahoma that he would continue coming home on weekends to practice medicine. He explained that he understood the value of having a Senator who came home and to hear from the people. He also voiced concern that being forced to end his practice would constitute a grave breach of his ethical obligations as a doctor.

Unfortunately, the Senate Ethics Committee this week announced that it would not grant Coburn the exception from Senate rules that he needed to continue seeing patients and delivering babies. The Committee even ordered Coburn to completely shutter his practice within nine months and cease practicing medicine as long as he remains in the Senate. The Senate, it seems, is very serious about ensuring that its members give up their professional lives and dedicate themselves entirely to politics and lawmaking.

Coburn’s response to the Committee’s decree was a promise to fight.

Without question, the ethics panel got it wrong. And without downplaying the importance of the Senate’s conflict of interest rules, there is room here for common sense to prevail. As Coburn told the Associated Press, “Somebody is not going to me for a sore throat or a female GYN exam so they can influence my vote.” Case closed.

The Senate Ethics Committee ought to rethink its decision and give Dr. Coburn the flexibility he needs to serve his community through both public service and practicing medicine. They ought to recognize, as he does, that being a doctor makes him a better Senator.

This Commentary first appeared in The Hill newspaper here.

April 7, 2005
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