Senate's Dr. Pain

Posted: Apr 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Tom Coburn, a U.S. senator from Oklahoma for less than four months, last week was up to old tricks he started playing in the House a decade ago. He was making colleagues' lives miserable by exposing wasteful, unnecessary spending that is supposed to stay hidden. The Senate establishment, like its House counterpart, has retaliated by bringing ethics charges against the obstetrician-senator for going home to Muskogee, Okla., to deliver babies.

 In a legislative body whose members spend much of their time off the Senate floor begging for money, it is worthy of Kafka that the only pending ethical proceeding involves Coburn's concept of the citizen-legislator. It is serious. Unless the rules are changed, Coburn must either break his campaign pledge of continuing baby deliveries or leave the Senate.

 His early departure from the Senate would occasion rejoicing there, as he showed April 20. Not observing a freshman senator's customary silent period, he proposed reducing the $592 million for a new U.S. embassy in Baghdad provided by the emergency supplemental appropriations bill. Coburn argued that since only $106 million could be spent over the next two years, "we are going to have $486 million hanging out there that will be rescinded and spent on something else." Instead of settling for the usual voice vote, Coburn insisted on a roll call (which he lost by only 54 to 45).

 The Oklahoma Republican establishment thought it was finished with Coburn when he fulfilled his term-limit pledge and left Congress after three-terms, ending in 2000. His subsequent memoir showed his contempt for Capitol Hill mores. When a Senate seat opened for the 2004 election, Coburn withstood vicious attacks in both the Republican primary and general election campaign.

 On Dec. 2, 2004, a Senate staffer handed Sen.-elect Coburn's chief-of-staff a letter signed by Sen. George Voinovich, the Senate Ethics Committee's Republican chairman, and Sen. Harry Reid, then the committee's ranking Democrat. The letter ordered Coburn to stop practicing medicine.

 The staffer was no stranger to the new senator: Robert L. Walker, staff director of the Senate Ethics Committee. He had held the same post for the House Ethics Committee the year after it made the same demand in 1998. House rules were not as firm, and the Ethics Committee backed down in 1998 when Coburn made clear he would quit Congress before he quit medicine. But Senate rules prohibit "substantial" outside income.

 During six years in the House, Coburn's campaign against pork-barrel spending made him anathema to Republican leaders. He planned a lower profile in the Senate, but the ethics complaint made that impossible. He also had an agenda ensuring him more attention than ordinary freshmen: bringing free market principles to health care, oversight of federal programs (as chairman of the Federal Financial Management Subcommittee) and assaulting congressional pork. For the first time since Phil Gramm left the Senate, Sen. John McCain had an anti-pork partner.

 In the April 20 debate on the supplemental appropriations bill, Coburn was the only senator to support McCain against Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was mandating that a $40 million project go to a "Philadelphia-based company." "I believe this is the wrong way we should be doing things," Coburn told the Senate. "We need to stop. Our future depends on the integrity of a budgeting and appropriations process that is not based on politics but is based on having the future best will for our country."

 It is hard to exaggerate how much Coburn's rhetoric riles pork-loving colleagues, explaining the absurd ethics proceeding against him. In answering charges that he is a part-time senator, Coburn wrote constituents last week that he will continue to "devote at least 60-70 hours per week to my Senate duties." Other senators spend as much time as Coburn back home but mainly for fund-raising. They are not stopped from padding their bankrolls with book royalties, farm income and investments.

 With little chance Voinovich will bury the complaint in the Ethics Committee, Coburn can hope that the Senate Rules Committee under Chairman Trent Lott will save the Senate from embarrassment by amending the rule. What is sure is that Tom Coburn will neither yield nor shut up.