Monday, December 12, 2005

Senator Voinovich and Senate Amendment 2633: A vote against modest ethics rules changes to allow Senator/Doctor Coburn to perform charitable work

On November 17, 2005 the U.S. Senate rejected amendment 2633 (text of the amendment: look for SA 2633) with a vote of 51 in support, 47 against and 2 not voting.

Senator Voinovich and 4 other Republicans (Frist, Roberts, Shelby and Thomas) joined with 43 Democrats to defeat the amendment, offered by Senator Lott, which effectively denies Senator and Doctor Tom Coburn from continuing his charitable obstetrics practice; charitable work he has conducted during his time as a Congressman and which was allowed by the House Ethics Rules.

Specifically, the rule change would have allowed Doctor Coburn to charge for his services and and then pay for his expenses and malpractice insurance which Coburn estimates to be about $200,000 a year. Coburn intent is to solely cover his expenses and perform the work pro bono.

The amendment , "To clarify treatment of outside income and expenses in the Senate", seeking the change to the Senate Ethic Rules required 60 votes for passage because it was offered as a "Motion to Waive CBA".

CBA stands for the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 which lays out the Congressional Budget process. Senator Lott was attempting to add the Ethic Rules change to Senate Bill 2020 ("An original bill to provide for reconciliation pursuant to section 202(b) of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2006").

Voinovich, as Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, was instrumental in the defeat of the amendment, using serveral arguments including:

Enforcement of this rule change will be impossible. The Ethics Committee would need to hire a small army of auditors and accountants to effectively evaluate what expenses were actual and necessary as the resolution would allow.
(See Senate Record for the 109th Congress, Pages S13104 to S13113 for a fascinating debate. Senator Voinovich's remarks starting on Page S13107).

Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, argued:

If this passes, it would tremendously undermine the work the Ethics Committee does.
Keep in mind that the House of Representatives allows the practice Senator Coburn is seeking without requiring the "small army of auditors" Senator Voinovich alludes to. Voinovich was the only Republican to speak out against the amendment during the debate.

Senator Coburn later commented on the actions of Senator Reid:

“I am saddened by the mindless partisanship reflected in tonight’s vote,” Dr. Coburn said after learning that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had lobbied Democrats to vote against the Lott amendment. “I appreciate the courage of the four Democrats, Thomas Carper (D-DE), Mark Dayton (D-MN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Barack Obama (D-IL) who put common sense ahead of partisan loyalty. Few Americans can comprehend the notion that it is a conflict of interest for me to deliver babies on a not-for-profit basis, but it is not a conflict of interest for other Senators to make unlimited royalties from books deals or have special interest groups cover their travel and lodging costs for political speeches.”
Senator Hatch rose in early support of the amendment and stated:

With all due respect to my colleagues on the Ethics Committee, and their staff, the ruling by the Ethics Committee is a bureaucratic response to a non-problem.

Dr. Coburn is not asking to make a profit here.

He has sworn to the committee and to this body that a reasonable reinterpretation of the Senate rules should allow him to practice medicine on a not-for-profit basis.

There is no conflict there.
A Wall Street Journal Opinion piece by John Fund (HT: BizzyBlog via email and at Misplaced Priorities in Congress) asserted that Senator Coburn's rebuke may have stemmed from his aggressive anti-pork barrel efforts:

...But senators weren't happy about having their pork-addicted ways held up to ridicule. Few doubt that wasn't part of the motivation a couple of days later for refusing to allow Dr. Coburn, an obstetrician, to earn just enough outside income so he could pay the expenses he incurs in delivering babies one day a week back home. Meanwhile, other senators continue to have carte blanche to earn outside income by writing song lyrics and novels that few believe would see the light of day were it not that they were famous as elected officials.

Doctor Coburn may have another opportunity to promote the rules change and bring it into alignment with the House ethics rules:

Coburn may try to go through the Rules and Administration Committee next year to draft an official change of the chamber’s rules, but such any alteration to the standing rules requires the highest of super majorities to cut off debate, 67 votes.


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