U.S. senators are not allowed to do remunerative work that involves a fiduciary relationship, lest they be unduly influenced by colleagues or customers. Now pro-life Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is in the sights of the Senate Ethics Committee because he delivers babies free of charge at the Muskogee Regional Medical Center.
Coburn continued his obstetrics practice while serving in the House of Representatives, and campaigned for Senate on the pledge that he would continue to serve as a citizen-legislator, as the Founders intended. He earned only enough money as a physician to cover his expenses, such as professional liability insurance.
The Senate, however, does not distinguish between gross and net income, and demanded that he shut down his practice within 9 months (Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Washington Post 4/6/05). Senate rules allow physicians such as former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a cardiac surgeon, to practice free of charge (Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Online 9/28/05).
The ethics panel renewed its concerns after the Muskogee Regional Medical Center converted to private ownership in April, and has threatened Coburn with censure.
Coburn has paid tens of thousands of dollars out of his own pocket for costs related to his medical practice. As he has pledged to leave the Senate after two terms, in 2016, he wants to maintain his skills so he can go back to earning a living from practicing medicine.
Coburn spokesman John Hart stated: “In the 10 years Dr. Coburn has provided free healthcare to his neighbors while serving in Congress, the Ethics Committee has never pointed to a single conflict of interest. No lobbyist or any individual has ever attempted to infiltrate his medical office under guise of an invasive medical exam to discuss Senate business.”
Hart also observed that Senator Leahy is not being targeted for making a cameo appearance in Batman. He donated the $2,000 he earned to a library. Nor are Senator Boxer or Senator Reid facing possible censure for holding book signings in private bookstores.
It so happens that Coburn is currently engaged in a battle with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) over the legislative agenda. Reid was forced to devote most of the Senate’s time recently to overpowering the hold that Coburn had placed on 35 bills. Coburn’s office suspects that an Ethics Panel memo was deliberately leaked for political reasons (Susan Crabtree, The Hill 7/28/08).
The charges may also be motivated by abortion politics, Hart suggested, as the Ethics Panel is dominated by pro-abortion senators. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins said he doubted that the panel would be targeting Coburn if he were doing free abortions for Planned Parenthood (LifeNews.com). 8/7/08
- “Is Charity Unlawful?” AAPS News, June 2004, p 3.
- “Charity, Kickbacks, or Inducements?” AAPS News, January 2005, p 3.
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