In July, federal authorities indicted Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, on corruption charges on the grounds that Alaska's Prince of Earmarks concealed hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts and improvements to his Alaska home provided by a powerful oil services company. Also this summer, amid the mortgage meltdown, newspapers reported that a number of senators including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; and Barack Obama, D.-Ill. were the beneficiaries of sweetheart home loans.
In June, the Senate Ethics Committee began an initial look into Dodd's and Conrad's discounted Countrywide Financial VIP loans, as is fitting. Meanwhile, with all of the ethics stink bombs lurking in Washington, the committee, chaired by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, is aiming its guns at Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for "a serious violation of Senate rules."
Coburn's bad? An obstetrician by profession, Coburn won't heed the committee's threat to reprimand him for delivering babies back home in Oklahoma for free.
"On my own time, I'm taking care of women who have a need, and I'm going to continue to deliver babies," Coburn told Politico.com.
And, bully for him: "I'm not going to stop." When a member of the House, Coburn delivered 400 babies under an agreement with ethics meisters that allowed him to do so if he charged only enough to cover his expenses.
When elected to the Senate, which was first run by Republicans and now Democrats, Ethics Committee members told Coburn that if he wants to treat patients largely poor and "at risk" mothers he could not charge them, and thus would have to eat the costs of his practice.
The Senate Ethics Committee allows big-buck book deals for U.S. senators, but in a May memorandum, it told Coburn, "you are allowed to practice medicine if you provide such services for free." So he started working for nothing.
Even free wasn't good enough. After the Muskogee Regional Medical Center, where he practices, was taken over by a for-profit operation, the committee told Coburn to cease "providing any and all medical services" by June 22, pursuant to Senate Rule 37 on conflicts of interest. Coburn could practice medicine only as a solo practitioner, for a private entity that provides services for free, or for a government or tribal health facility.
What's really going on here? The senator who prefers to be called Dr. Coburn has been a thorn in the side of both big-spending Republicans and Democrats. He calls earmarks "the gateway drug" to Washington's spending addiction. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote back in 2006 when the GOP ran the Senate, "Tom Coburn is like an imam at a pig roast: He sees pork everywhere, and he doesn't like it."
Coburn bucked party leaders as he tried to block Stevens' $229 million earmark, largely for a bridge between Anchorage and an island with 50 residents, infamously dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere."
When Democrats took over the Senate, Coburn challenged their pork-barrel projects as well. In July, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bundled 35 spending bills into a $10 billion omnibus package, Coburn successfully led the charge to block the measure citing next year's projected $482 billion deficit. As Coburn likes to say, the American people elect senators to "make hard choices and live within our means."
After I called Sen. Boxer's office, a committee spokesperson sent me a note that said, "The work of the Ethics Committee is confidential and we cannot comment on matters that may be before it." In July, Boxer told the Washington Post, "He knows what he's supposed to be doing."
The savvy observer has to conclude that because Coburn has challenged Senate pork, the Ethics Committee essentially is willing to stick it to poor pregnant women, who might benefit from a free delivery.
It's a tactical blunder. If the committee continues to push for a public reprimand, Coburn has the right to ask for a full Senate vote. While Boxer may not mind coming across as petty and vindictive, other senators might hesitate before publicly bullying a man for delivering babies for free.
As Coburn spokesman John Hart noted, there have been many stories about lawmakers, their friends and families profiting from earmarks, but "no one has ever chosen to have Dr. Coburn deliver her baby in order to sway his vote."
With Democrats in charge, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics is no more ethical than it was under the GOP. In going after Coburn, its mandate is clear: Forget Ethics, It's Payback Time.