Ethics Panel Finds Conflict With Coburn’s Job as Physician
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.