Sensenbrenner plays it safe on ethics amid criticism

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) took the unusual step of recusing himself from consideration of one of President Bush’s top domestic priorities last week, citing concerns about violating House rules on conflicts of interest. The House passed a bill to establish limits on medical-liability lawsuits — but it did so without the vote of the influential committee chairman who helped shape the measure in the 108th Congress. Sensenbrenner voted present on the bill, H.R. 5, and on the motion to recommit July 28.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) took the unusual step of recusing himself from consideration of one of President Bush’s top domestic priorities last week, citing concerns about violating House rules on conflicts of interest.

The House passed a bill to establish limits on medical-liability lawsuits — but it did so without the vote of the influential committee chairman who helped shape the measure in the 108th Congress. Sensenbrenner voted present on the bill, H.R. 5, and on the motion to recommit July 28.

“I have concluded that my holdings in at least two corporations that may benefit if H.R. 5 is enacted into law, coupled with my chairmanship of the committee of primary jurisdiction over this legislation, raise legitimate questions concerning whether my participation in this legislation conflicts with my private economic affairs,” Sensenbrenner said on the House floor July 27.

Voting on the bill would not constitute a conflict of interest, Sensenbrenner said. However, he added, “I wish to forcefully dispel any appearance of such a conflict.”

Sensenbrenner’s recusal comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to congressional ethics after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others have come under fire for privately funded travel.

The decision is unrelated to questions recently raised about Sensenbrenner’s ethical conduct, Lungren insisted. The chairman wrote to a U.S. appeals court judge in Chicago urging a lengthier sentence for a convicted illegal-drug courier, the Chicago Tribune reported last month. Critics have said the letter violated House rules regarding direct contact between lawmakers and judges on legal matters.

The recusal on medical liability and the controversy surrounding the letter are “two entirely separate issues,” said Jeff Lungren, communications director for the Judiciary Committee.

The liability bill seeks to set caps on medical-malpractice lawsuits against doctors but also would provide protections for drug makers and other healthcare companies against lawsuits.

According to the 2004 financial-disclosure report he entered into the Congressional Record in May, Sensenbrenner holds shares in several healthcare firms, including three pharmaceutical manufacturers: Merck ($1.1 million), Pfizer ($583,482) and Abbot Laboratories ($568,764). Members are not required to put their disclosure reports into the record, but they are available to the public.

Sensenbrenner owned stock in Merck and other healthcare firms when he voted for medical-liability reform in past years. He also oversaw a Judiciary Committee markup in March 2003 of a bill that was nearly identical to the recently passed measure.

He decided to steer clear of liability reform this year because of “developments in the pharmaceutical industry” such as “high-profile lawsuits,” Lungren said.

Merck faces a torrent of legal actions that could cost the company billions of dollars after its popular prescription painkiller Vioxx was linked with deaths from heart attacks and strokes. Amid intense political pressure and media attention, Merck took Vioxx off the market last September.

The medical-liability bill itself faces a predictably uncertain future in the Senate — which has been the graveyard for malpractice reform for years because of Democratic objections — but changing chairmanships this year might further complicate the issue.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) took to the Senate floor last month to outline his misgivings about the companion bill to the House-passed measure.

“The pending bill is the starting point for analysis, discussion, debate and possible amendment,” Specter said July 7. “I am prepared to proceed with the caveat that there is much work to be done before the Senate would be ready, in my opinion, for consideration of final passage,” he said.

Bush has repeatedly called on Congress to send him a medical-liability bill and the American Medical Association has championed the legislation as one of its top priorities.

Specter remarked that the solution to rising medical-malpractice premiums is “much broader” than capping lawsuit awards. Medical errors and malpractice-insurance companies’ investment policies and administrative practices also contribute to the problem, he said.

Moreover, lawsuit caps should allow for exceptions, he said. Seeking to establish federal standards that parallel a recently enacted Pennsylvania law, Specter said cases involving “death, serious impairment of bodily function and permanent disfigurement or dismemberment” should be eligible for higher damages in court. Specter voted in favor of a failed cloture motion on the bill in July 2003.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) also has signaled his intention to put his own stamp on the malpractice-reform debate. Enzi and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced a bill in June that would establish a special “health court” to hear malpractice complaints but would not set limits on damage awards. Enzi also voted for cloture on the lawsuit-caps bill in 2003. His committee does not have jurisdiction over lawsuit caps.