Ethics, heal thyself

Ethicists know that what is legal may not be ethical. The wide gap between the two underlines the fact that legislators have traditionally not sought to codify and proscribe every last act that is questionable. This restraint is wise.

The silly tangle created by efforts to codify ethical minutiae has been demonstrated again and again during the past several years, as lawmakers have worked themselves into a froth about ethical lapses and sought to make sure that they are eradicated as nearly as possible.

The trend toward ever-tighter ethical strictures has been based, very obviously, on egregious behavior by some lawmakers, notably Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who is now in prison for abusing his elected position with crass demands for luxury bribes.

But the trend is also due to less concrete problems, to a sort of vaporous hysteria in the news media and in political campaigns about the possibility that lawmakers might get some minute benefit from their office, such as free movie tickets or a steak dinner with a friend working on K Street.

Perhaps nowhere is the ethical confusion plainer than in the case of Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) decision to continue delivering babies — he is a qualified obstetrician — free for poor women.

The Senate Ethics panel, concerned about possible conflicts of interest, has raised objections because the public hospital at which the good doctor does this pro bono work has been taken into the private sector. In May the panel sent Coburn a “final determination,” which amounts to a cease-and-desist order, threatening him with censure.

This is ridiculous. It is good for the country, not bad for it, that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are not purely career politicians. It adds a much-needed dose of real-world perspective to legislative deliberation to have members of Congress who are grounded in something other than the perpetuation of their own political careers.

As Coburn pointed out, his continued charitable obstetrics are no more objectionable — they are, of course, admirable — than lawmakers making cameo appearances in Hollywood movies or agreeing to sign their books in bookstores. Many lawmakers have large stock portfolios — the Senate is sometimes referred to as a millionaire’s club — and they are, in interested ways, plugged into the life of the nation they work for.

America does not need its laws decided by people living in a hermetically sealed legislative bubble. We need lawmakers conscious of the fact that there is more to life than lawmaking.

If the Ethics panel does not understand that, or if the ethics codes do not recognize that, the fault lies with them and not with individual lawmakers engaged in perfectly honorable outside activities.