Congress Needs Citizen Legislators
by U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.
(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), M.D. released this open letter to his constituents regarding his decision to challenge a Senate Ethics Committee ruling directing him to shut down his medical practice:
When I announced my candidacy to the U.S. Senate, one of the promises I made to the voters of Oklahoma was that I would not lose touch with their everyday needs and concerns. One of the ways I promised to stay in touch was to continue seeing patients in my medical practice on a not-for-profit basis, just as I had done when I represented Oklahoma's 2nd congressional district from 1995-2001.
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. I also believed it was important for Oklahoma voters to know what kind of representation I intended to offer before they went to the polls.
When the Senate Ethics Committee recently issued a ruling, based on a 1977 guideline, directing me to shut down my practice I was faced with an important choice. I could either yield to the committee's demands, or I could challenge a ruling that I believe both undermines our Founding Father's vision of a citizen legislature and contradicts the will of many Oklahoma voters. For me, the choice was clear, which is why I am now working with my colleagues to update the Senate rules.
The comments my office has received about my decision have been overwhelmingly supportive but several newspapers in our state have raised questions that deserve to be addressed.
One concern is that my treatment of patients will make me less than a “full-time” senator. I have been and will continue to devote at least 60-70 hours per week to my Senate duties. My work ethic was never questioned while I practiced medicine during my six years of service in the House. The unique demands of service in the Senate are not sufficiently greater than those in the House to now cause anyone to be concerned that I will be less than a full-time senator. It is also important to note that the Senate is only in session for only seven months per year.
Several papers have also suggested that my service to my patients is an improper distraction to my official Senate duties or even a personal indulgence. I would argue that my unique relationship with my patients is exactly what our founders had in mind when they envisioned a government of the people . The trade-off that exists isn't between my medical practice and my official duties; it's between serving my patients and participating in other activities popular in the Washington scene, such as attending golf tournaments and fund-raising dinners.
One point that many Oklahomans, leaders in U.S. Senate and commentators from the left and right seem to agree on is that it is ludicrous to suggest that the practice of medicine is a conflict of interest for me. Parents of babies I deliver don't choose me hoping to sway my vote.
It's important to step back and remember that the purpose of the Senate ethics rules is to help ensure that senators are upholding the Constitution and representing their constituents, not misusing their position to help themselves politically or financially. Unfortunately, today's Senate ethics rules are far from meeting that goal. The rules have some strange twists that could not have been intended. For example, as a senator, I am not allowed to provide medical services on a not-for-profit basis, but I am allowed to receive royalties for books or dividends on investments – sources of income that have far more potential for a conflict of interest.
Part of the solution must involve going back to the clearest ethical guideline ever developed for members of Congress in our system of government – the ideal of citizen legislators. As a senator, there is no better way for me to stay true to the Constitution and my constituents than to be enmeshed in the culture of Oklahoma rather than Washington, D.C. Senate ethics rules written in 1977 do not cancel out the previous 200 years of American history and tradition.
I'll continue to fight for the principles I outlined during my campaign, including the ideal of citizen legislators. The Senate ethics rules should respect not only the intent of our Founding Fathers but the desire of many Oklahoma voters to be represented in the Senate by someone who is striving to be a citizen legislator.
Boise City News