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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Senator Tom Coburn: A Clash Between Ethics and Responsibility

By Richard Sincere

It was recently my pleasure to attend two performances of the musical play, 1776, as produced by the Four County Players, a community theater in the historic village of Barboursville, Virginia (named for nineteenth-century Governor James Barbour).

Despite taking some minor liberties with actual words and events for dramatic effect, the creators of 1776 do an excellent job in telling the story of how 50-odd agitators and activists in Philadelphia came to declare the independence of the United States from the British crown.

Upon reflection, what was striking about these men was how they saw government service as a temporary burden to be suffered gladly (though sometimes not so gladly). They were farmers, shopkeepers, lawyers, publishers, and physicians. People like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock served their country for short periods with the aim of returning to their normal lives and livelihoods. Over time they might hold several offices, but never for many consecutive years.

For more than a century, political leaders in the United States held firm to the concept of a “citizen legislature.” They agreed with Aristotle’s view that “a principle of liberty is to rule and be ruled in turn.” The “Potomac fever” that grips modern-day politicians and keeps them in Washington for decades at a time was unknown until after World War I.

Benjamin Franklin explained that “in free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former, therefore, to return among the latter [is] not to degrade but to promote them.” George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, warned: “Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interests of his constituents as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people from whence he was taken.”

More than a generation later, Andrew Jackson cautioned further:

“There are perhaps few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power, without more or less being under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” he said. “Their integrity may be proof against improper considerations immediately addressed to themselves; but they are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interest, and of tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt. Office is considered a species of property; and government, rather as a means of promoting individual interests, than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people.”

What brings all this to mind is the recent case of Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who was elected last year after a campaign in which he pledged “to serve no more than two terms in the Senate and to continue to care for patients.” (Dr. Coburn is an obstetrician-gynecologist with a practice in his hometown of Muskogee.). In 1994, Coburn ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, promising then to serve no more than three terms, a promise he kept when he retired after the 2000 election.

Senator Coburn faces an obstacle in keeping his recent promises. The Senate Ethics Committee has issued a ruling that forbids him from practicing medicine. As explained by the Washington Post, “For nearly two decades, Senate rules have barred members from holding outside professional jobs, such as those as lawyers, real estate agents and physicians, for fear that such services -- and compensation for those services -- might conflict with their role as policymakers. The Senate panel refused Coburn’s request to grant him a special exception once he closes his business.”

This rule, as well-intentioned as it might be, is at odds with the principle that legislators are citizens first, whose term in Congress should merely interrupt their private lives. While it is important to prevent impropriety and corruption, ethics rules should not override larger principles of governance. Ethics should not provide an excuse for the perpetuation of a permanent, professional political class.

Dr. Coburn believes strongly and explicitly in the value of a citizen legislature, one made up of dedicated and talented amateurs who serve their constituents not permanently but well.

Paul Jacob, a senior fellow at Americans for Limited Government, notes wryly: “Unsurprisingly, those who believe in a permanent, professional legislature can’t grasp Coburn’s notions. To them, politics is the career, the most important career. Nothing higher to aspire to. Anything else is second best.”

In other words, as Jacob says, “a total inversion of values.”

On specific legislative issues, Tom Coburn disagrees with me as often as not. That’s beside the point, however. Whether liberal, conservative, or libertarian, Congress needs more members who will fight for the principles of proper governance laid down by our Founders. Congress needs more citizen-legislators and fewer full-time, permanent, careerist politicians. Congress needs more Tom Coburns.

Richard Sincere. entertainment editor for The Metro Herald, a weekly newspaper published in Alexandria, Virginia, blogs on political and cultural topics at

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