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Congress Is a Full-Time Job, Sen. Coburn

Surely Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) understands that serving as a Member of Congress is a full-time job. Surely he agrees that residents of Oklahoma deserve Senators and Representatives who devote their full time and attention to their official duties, whether it’s in Washington, D.C., tending to legislative business, or in their state to handle local and constituent problems. Surely he appreciates that these constitutional responsibilities alone, not even counting campaign activities, place enormous demands on a Member’s time and challenge the considerable abilities of all conscientious Members and their staffs.

As a three-term House Member, Coburn knew exactly what he was getting into when he ran for election to the Senate in 2004 following a brief hiatus from public office. Yet, now he wants the Senate to circumvent its long-standing rule that bans outside earned income so he can continue practicing his private- citizen profession, obstetrics.

The freshman Senator has asked for an exception from the rule similar to the one carved out in 1998 by the House ethics committee in response to his request. The House rule allows medical doctors to accept fees sufficient to cover their expenses, including medical malpractice insurance, despite the existing statutory restriction on such fees that took effect in 1991. The House’s decision was unfortunate and mistaken.

In one form or another, Congressional limits on outside earned income have been part of either House or Senate rules for more than three decades. One principal reason has been to avoid potential conflicts of interest, but the framers of the rule had a second and equally important rationale: that outside earned income detracts from a Member’s full-time attention to his or her official duties.

This concept was first introduced by the public-private Commission on Administrative Review, chaired by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). In 1977, the commission recommended a new House rule limiting outside earned income to 15 percent of salary. The Obey commission said its purpose was “to assure the public that: 1) Members are not cashing in on their positions of influence or being affected by the prospects of outside income, and 2) outside activities are not detracting from a Member’s attention to his or her job.”

As the commission explained, “outside earned income also presents a ‘time conflict’ between the Member’s private interest and the public interest.” Not only does supplementing salary with outside earned income detract from a Member’s full-time attention to official duties, it also “creates subtle distortions in judgment as to how Members should use their time.”

The “full-time job” rationale for rules limiting a Member’s outside earned income was reaffirmed in 1989 by the House Bipartisan Task Force on Ethics, which tightened the rule by prohibiting income from professional services for a client, such as law, insurance, real estate and medicine.

Also in 1989 came President George H.W. Bush’s Commission on Federal Ethics Reform, which recommended a uniform cap on outside earned income for senior officials in all three branches of government.

The vast majority of Members and senior government officials have complied with these rules of conduct for years. They understand that a public office is a public trust, and that fundamental to that trust is assuring the public that they devote full time and attention to their official duties on behalf of the American people who pay their salary.

Now, Coburn and his supporters want to pass a “sense of the Senate” resolution in support of his ability to continue delivering babies — a blatant attempt to bypass the Senate Ethics Committee.

If Coburn insists on delivering babies on weekends, one wonders how he expects to do justice to his constitutional duties to the people of Oklahoma. If he maintains the customary schedule of a Senator, one wonders how he expects to faithfully do his job as an obstetrician in Oklahoma. Whether a pregnant patient or impatient constituent, who could trust that Dr. or Sen. Coburn will be there when it counts?

Roy Dye served as staff director of the Bipartisan Task Force on Ethics in 1989 and previously worked on ethics reforms as a staff member to the Obey commission, the Senate Ethics Committee, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the House Judiciary Committee.

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