Politics & Policy

Bad Rx

The unhealthy campaign against Tom Coburn.

“When I ponder our country and its greatness, its weaknesses, and its potential, my heart aches for less divisiveness.”

That’s not just Joe Citizen expressing his frustration with the partisanship of the U.S. Senate. That’s Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), expressing his frustration during the first day of confirmation hearings for President Bush’s nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts. And although Coburn expressed a little more emotion than a senator probably should–he was breaking down–Coburn expressed something a lot of people were thinking, as liberal interest groups pushed Democratic senators to insist that Roberts was some kind of threat to “progress” and “freedom” in America (in this case, usually code words for “abortion”).

But the Senate is currently slated to clamp down on the Joe Citizenry of Coburn. Senate rules currently allow those who practice medicine, such as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to continue to do so free of charge to their patients. Coburn wants just enough to cover overhead and continue to serve his patients.

A Senate Ethics Committee ruling would have Coburn shut down his medical practice by the end of September–citing a potential conflict of interest in his profession as an obstetrician–or risk censure by the Senate.

But censuring him is simply a bad prescription.

Coburn won’t be shut down, however. He has insisted: “I’m going to continue to practice medicine either way, one way or the other.”

An obstetrician, Dr. Coburn ran for office last year, pledging that he would continue to see patients–as I mentioned above, not to make money (though wanting to collect enough to break even–handle insurance, equipment costs, etc.), but to better serve his constituents. In a recent open letter Coburn wrote, “I made this pledge at nearly every campaign stop not merely because I wanted to keep practicing medicine, but because I believed maintaining my connection with the real-life needs and concerns of my patients and neighbors would make me a better senator.”

As Coburn argues, his model of citizen legislator is something the Founding Fathers would endorse. He believes that his “unique relationship with (his) patients is exactly what our founders had in mind when they envisioned a government of the people.” For an obstetrician to completely surrender his practice for the duration of his Senate term would put him at a severe disadvantage–making going back to his medical practice after his time in D.C. all the more arduous. This is not something the Founders would approve of, Coburn argues.

Further, besides letting down his constituents, who elected him as a citizen legislator knowing he intended to practice medicine, he would be letting down his patients–for no good reason. As Coburn told the Ethics Committee, “I am currently caring for many high-risk patients including some who have multiple sclerosis and other debilitating conditions.” Coburn argues, “I simply cannot abandon those patients. I trust that the committee can imagine how abruptly terminating my practice would violate my medical ethics.”

Coburn being a doctor really shouldn’t be a problem. Others have done double-duty, including a New York senator early in the 20th century (Royal Copeland), who played a key role in founding what would become the Food and Drug Administration. And is whether Coburn delivers some babies now and again really something the Senate needs to concern itself with? Coburn served in the House of Representatives from 1995-2001 and remained Doc Coburn all the while. (He did right by his term-limits pledge, by the way, leaving when he did.) As senator, he pledges to spend 60-70 hours a week on Senate work, even while doing the doctor thing.

In a Senate where the Majority Leader himself is a doctor–a heart surgeon–the Ethics Committee crusade to shut down Coburn’s practice is particularly odd.

And in a Washington where the president’s first Supreme Court nominee has been criticized for supposedly not having enough “real world” experience, isn’t Dr. Coburn exactly what the Beltway doctors ordered?

But Coburn is considered in some circles to be a troublemaker, a maverick freshman. He doesn’t always play by party rules. Between serving in the House of Representatives and running for the Senate, Coburn did a very impolite thing for Washington, D.C.: He wrote a book expressing his disdain for the way the city works (Breach of Trust).

Of course, Trent Lott, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, who recently penned a book in which he likened his Senate colleagues to a herd of cats, shouldn’t throw stones on that front.

Books or no books, however, Lott and Majority Leader Frist should put the kibosh on the unnecessary, unhealthy Ethics Committee fight against Tom Coburn.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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