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December 12, 2005

So much for citizen legislators

From the Opinion Journal...

Dr. Coburn, who delivered about 65 babies a year while he served in the House during the 1990s, wanted to continue serving his patients after he won a Senate seat last year. He noted that the House Ethics Committee had allowed him to earn just enough money as a physician to cover his medical malpractice premiums and other expenses.
But the Senate had a different idea, Even before he was sworn in, Dr. Coburn was handed a letter from the Senate Ethics Committee chairman informing him that he cold not "receive compensation for practicing a profession which involves a fiduciary relationship." The fact that Dr. Coburn wouldn't have made any financial gain from delivering babies was immaterial. Ethics member Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, summed up the committee's stance: "When you go into Congress, that's your job. When you come here, this is your commitment."

Sen. Coburn soon found he did have allies, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart surgeon, and Rules Committee chairman Trent Lott. Dr. Frist said he had special concern for Mr. Coburn's dilemma. While he still practices medicine on relief missions to Africa, it's on a volunteer basis and he has no plans to return to medicine after he retires next year. But Sen. Coburn is a true citizen-legislator, who has pledged to serve only 12 years in the Senate and thus has to keep up his medical skills if he is to continue being able to earn a living in his chosen profession.

But both Sens. Frist and Lott realized that it would prove difficult to garner the 67 votes needed to change Senate rules to accommodate their Oklahoma colleague. So instead they offered a sense-of-the-Senate resolution that would only need 60 votes and more or less tell the Ethics Committee that the full body wouldn't back up any finding it made that delivering babies while a senator was illegal.

Nice try, but it didn't work. Last month, only 51 senators supported Dr. Coburn. To his credit, Sen. Stevens didn't let his anger over his lost bridge sway him. He voted to let Dr. Coburn practice medicine. But the "no" votes included other Old Bull Republicans, like John Warner of Virginia and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Only four of the body's 44 Democrats voted in favor....

Sen. Coburn says the way Congress is structured discourages people with real-world experience in fields other than law from giving up their career and serving. "It is absurd to think that I have a conflict of interest the way a lawyer being compensated by a client of expenses would," he told me. "None of my patients come to see me and ask them to deliver their baby in order to influence my vote in Congress. Let's get real."

Despite the rebuff by his Senate colleagues, the good doctor says he has just begun to fight. "Fifty-one votes is a great moral victory for me," Dr. Coburn said, "and I'm not going to quit." He promises to seek a formal rules change from the Senate at a future date.

But just in case common sense doesn't prevail, he is taking precautions. He no longer accepts new patients and has withdrawn from a group partnership he belonged to with other physicians. He estimates that in today's litigious climate he needs $200,000 a year to pay for his expenses, mostly malpractice premiums. If he isn't allowed to collect it, he will have to hang up his stethoscope. "It may not make sense, but it will have its flip side," he told me. "I'll have a lot more time to devote to changing our tort system so that premiums don't have to be that ruinously high."

Weren't the democrats making a stink about Newt Gingrich's book a few years back? Apparently they have different rule they apply to themselves.

Posted by Danny Carlton at December 12, 2005 05:42 AM

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