Lott Would Allow Coburn to Practice

Posted June 29, 2005 at 6:54pm

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has crafted language that would alter the definition of the chamber’s ethics rules in a way that allows Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to continue his medical practice — and would likely permit other Senators to maintain outside professional services as well.

Lott, chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, said Wednesday he is pushing for a final verdict on the issue by mid-July but acknowledged that it could take up until Sept. 30, which is the Ethics Committee deadline for Coburn to finally transition out of his Muskogee, Okla., obstetrics and gynecological practice.

“I have some language,” Lott said Wednesday, adding that he was starting to show it to top Senate leaders. “I’m going to discuss it with the necessary Democrats.”

While he would not reveal the details of his rules change, Lott said the key provision was changing the rule on “compensation” in Senate Rule 37. That’s the provision that forbids Coburn from practicing medicine, as well as any other Senator from serving in law, engineering, real estate and other professions that involve a “fiduciary” relationship in firms and private practices.

Lott’s effort is an attempt to overturn the ruling of the Ethics Committee, which cited the provision in a strongly worded March 18 letter to Coburn that rejected his proposal to continue delivering babies, but in a way that allowed him no profits.

The committee’s chairman, George Voinovich (R-Ohio), and vice chairman, Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), wrote that the rules are intended to ensure that Senators “undertake their official duties as, and understand them to be, a full-time responsibility.”

While Lott’s draft proposal was specifically designed to help Coburn, he said it would not be limited to his practice and would, if approved, mark a major change to chamber rules that were adopted back in the 1970s and 1980s to prevent lawmakers from taking up outside work that could create a conflict of interest.

“You cannot design it in any way that it only applies to him,” Lott said.

Coburn, who is supportive of Lott’s efforts, declined to comment. “I’m probably better not to comment on any of it,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) — who has not maintained his medical practice but has continued doing volunteer work by funding medical malpractice insurance and other expenses from his own pocket — said he has not spoken with Lott about the proposal in several weeks.

Coburn had requested that Ethics allow him to continue his practice and receive payments to cover expenses such as nursing salaries, medical liability, office rent and “limited” overhead costs. But current rules would define any such payment as “compensation” from a firm or practice, which is clearly forbidden under the rules.

So Lott said his draft would alter compensation to allow payments, but no net profits. “It changes the definition of compensation. Basically, he can’t have any benefit,” Lott said.

That proposed provision would allow any other Senator to open a similar professional practice based on the premise of not turning actual net profits.

“Personally, I think we went too far,” Lott said of the current rules, endorsing Coburn’s view that Senators ought to be able to more easily take up the role of “citizen legislators” that the Oklahoman campaigned on in 2004. “This is something we ought to do for ourselves.”

In addition to physicians Frist and Coburn, the Senate has two veterinarians, John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Wayne Allard (R-Colo.); one accountant, Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.); at least one engineer, John Sununu (R-N.H.); and dozens of lawyers. Under Lott’s draft proposal, all of them would presumably be allowed to practice their professions at firms, at least in some limited way.

The Rules chairman acknowledged that there may have to be some limitations on who gets approved to take up which professional services. Lott, a lawyer himself, said before entering Congress in 1973, he personally was drifting toward focusing on estate planning — something that he thinks a Senator ought to be able to do without creating a conflict of interest.

“There’s no conflict — I could have done that,” he said.

Lott said he’s not certain how much support he’ll gather from Democrats and other Republicans, but he intends to determine whether this is a feasible measure soon. “By the second week we’re back here in July, we’re going to try to find a way to do it,” he said.

If there’s enough support, he plans to move the proposal through his committee and then to the floor.

Under Coburn’s agreement with Ethics, he is in the process of transitioning out of his practice by Sept. 30. He has set up a separate account to monitor what he is paid and how much his costs are to demonstrate to the panel that he will not turn any profits, and documentation of that is to be turned over to Ethics by Oct. 31.