Ethics Panel Finds Conflict With Coburn’s Job as Physician

Ethics Panel Finds Conflict With Senator’s Job as Physician (WaPo, p. A5)

For years, Republican Tom Coburn juggled his duties as a House member and a family physician back in Oklahoma, where he delivered dozens of babies annually. But since winning a Senate seat last fall, Coburn has clashed with Senate ethics committee members over whether he could continue to do double duty as a lawmaker and an obstetrician. Now, Coburn says, the ethics committee has ruled that his private practice constitutes a potential conflict of interest with his work in Washington, and it has given him until Sept. 30 to close his office in Muskogee, Okla. An outraged Coburn is vowing to fight the ruling, arguing that the panel’s decision contradicts the Founding Fathers’ desire for lawmakers to retain ties to their communities.

In an interview yesterday, he vowed to seek the backing of sympathetic grass-roots groups to try to persuade the panel to alter Senate rules and open the way for doctors in the Senate to see patients for pay. “My hope,” he said, “is to get a rules change that will allow me to continue to practice medicine.”

Coburn and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) are the only senators who are physicians. For nearly two decades, Senate rules have barred members from holding outside professional jobs, such as those as lawyers, real estate agents and physicians, for fear that such services — and compensation for those services — might conflict with their role as policymakers. The Senate panel refused Coburn’s request to grant him a special exception once he closes his business.

The decision is a blow to the freshman who pledged at almost every campaign stop last year to serve as a citizen legislator — a senator in Washington and an obstetrician-gynecologist at home.

Coburn was on Fox Special Report with Brit Hume this evening discussing this and, from what I can gather, his actions seem quite above board. Still, it would be very difficult to write the rules in a way to allow private practices without risking unethical conduct.

Frist is within the rules because he practices medicine only abroad and does not collect money. Coburn says that he only accepts enough to pay for malpractice insurance and other necessary expenses, making no profit. There has to be some way for him to practice, pro bono, as part of a hospital or other medical office in Oklahoma, keeping in touch with his constituents, keeping his pledge, and yet staying within ethics guidelines.

Update: Charles Krauthammer, himself a physician, drew parallels with the NIH consulting regulations I commented on a few months ago.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I think he is right that the founding fathers never intended this.

    I also don’t have huge issues with him continueing to work-especially if he in fact is only collecting enough money to cover his malpractice.

    I am just not seeing some major conflict of interest with him delivering babies, I have more ethical issues with men who have spent their whole lives in congress as a full time job than somebody who actually tries to keep a practice together while they serve their constituents.

  2. Marie says:

    Give me a break. Let the man practice medicine. I personally trust no one in the government, with lobbyists, special interests, etc….. No one is keeping too close an eye on those government officials with their hands out. Don’t the bozos in Washington have enough to do ‘running the country’ (and I mean this with complete malice and sarcasm), without worrying about one guy delivering babies? For the Love Of All that is Holy,,,,,,,,Fix what is broken fellas! Try working on setting up health care for pitys sake.

  3. kappiy says:

    You would have to be nuts to go to this Coburn character for medical care. How in the world could he keep up with the latest medical research/journals and be in the Senate at the same time? Furthermore, who would want a doctor who has another full time job in an unrelated field? Both Coburn and Frist, for that matter, are doctors any reasonable person would want to stay away from.

  4. Just Me says:

    Coburn is an OB/GYN and I imagine he has kept his practice very limited (probably hasn’t been taking new patients) and speaking as a woman, when you find an OB/GYN you like, you like to stick with that person.

    Also, Coburn has continued his practice while a house member-so he has already shown he can do the job in congress and his job as a physician.

    Also, the US congress isn’t and shouldn’t be a full time job. While I am not on the legal term limits bandwagon, I do think there is something wrong when a person’s entire career is the US congress/Senate. At least Coburn and Frist have had and done real jobs, something that Kerry, Kennedy and several others can’t.

  5. McGehee says:

    Also, the US congress isn’t and shouldn’t be a full time job.

    “Shouldn’t be” is right. Unfortunately, it is — and has been for entirely too long.

    When Nixon anounced his resignation, he said America deserved a full-time Congress. Why, Mr. President? What did America ever do to you?

  6. Kent says:

    I am much in favor of Congress not being a full-time job.

    After all, no one’s life, liberty, or property are secure when Congress is in session. 😉