Skip to content

Obey the Rules

It ought to be easy for the Senate to figure out whether Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an obstetrician by profession, can deliver babies on weekends. But the case has become complicated, even nasty. It ought to be decided in a straightforward manner, not by dodges.

Senate rules adopted in 1977 and the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 clearly forbid Senators from receiving compensation for practicing any profession, with medicine specifically included. Legislative history on the matter shows that the rules and law were designed primarily to prevent conflicts of interest, to prevent Members and executive branch officials from using law firms and insurance brokerages to receive funds from special interests, and to establish that high-level government work is a full-time job.

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who was co-chairman with Sen. Gaylord Nelson (R-Wis.) of the special committee that drafted new ethics rules in 1977, declared on the floor that “the job of U.S. Senator is a full-time job, and if one is able to find time to render professional services for compensation, I seriously question his ability to render the commensurate service necessary to be a full-time Senator.”

Even though the House also is covered by the 1989 law, that chamber’s ethics committee made an exception for doctors until 1998. Then, with then-Rep. Coburn in mind, it changed the rule to forbid the regular practice of medicine, but to allow it when the doctor’s compensation over a year does not exceed his expenses, especially medical malpractice insurance. The committee concluded that doctors often need to practice to maintain their skills and their licenses.

When Coburn was elected to the Senate in 2004, he received a letter from the staff director of the Senate Ethics Committee, Robert Walker, advising him that under Senate rules he could not continue to practice. Coburn has been fighting the ruling ever since. As part of the campaign, his staff and Senate supporters have attacked Walker personally and now plan a stratagem to skirt Senate rules.

Ethics Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Vice Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and veteran member Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) all concur that Coburn shouldn’t practice. “When you go into Congress, that’s your job,” Thomas said. “When you come here, this is your commitment.”

Coburn’s allies point to the example of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), who performs surgery on a pro-bono basis and is wealthy enough to pay his malpractice premiums out of his own pocket. They say that Coburn can’t afford a similar arrangement. Moreover, they argue, the time that Coburn spends delivering about 70 babies a year is time that many other Senators spend fundraising, not legislating. And, they point out, Senate rules do allow Members to accept farm income and royalties from books.

The simple solution to this problem, if Senators want to make an exception, is to change the Senate rules. But, fearing they lack the 67 votes it would require, Coburn’s supporters, including Frist and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), want to pass a sense-of-the-Senate resolution backing Coburn’s case. They hope it will garner 60 votes and tacitly inform the Ethics Committee that, were it to find Coburn in violation of the rules, the Senate would not sustain the finding.

But the way to change the rules is not to declare that they won’t be enforced. It is to change the rules according to the rules. If the Senate won’t do that, then Coburn should give up delivering babies and make the Senate his full-time job.