The Loop: Legislating Isn't All This Senator Can Do

At a fundraiser, Sen. Arlen Spector got a visit from a multi-talented colleague.
At a fundraiser, Sen. Arlen Spector got a visit from a multi-talented colleague. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Al Kamen
Monday, July 13, 2009

And now, additional proof that there is more to life than being a senator and responding like Pavlov's dog to the buzzer summoning lawmakers for floor votes.

Take the recent fundraiser in Northwest Washington for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), a cancer survivor and ardent supporter of medical research. The fundraiser featured, in addition to the well-heeled, prominent medical-community guests such as former National Institutes of Health chief Elias Zerhouni and former National Cancer Institute director Andrew von Eschenbach.

Specter told the gathering he knew when he voted for the stimulus bill -- with the $10 billion infusion for medical research -- that he was jumping off a political cliff, that he would be tarred as a big spender and would face a strong Republican primary challenge. (Of course, it looks like he's now facing a very tough Democratic challenge.)

But Specter, and many there who supported the funding boost, long ago concluded that such investments in research would pay big dividends down the road. That would be research particularly for diabetes, heart disease and other maladies that drive up Medicare and Medicaid costs as the population ages.

Specter's onetime GOP colleague, former senator Ted Stevens, showed up a bit late. Seems he was tending to a mosquito-catcher that wasn't working very well. So he started taking it apart, he explained, ignoring his wife's concerns that he might harm himself or others. He worked on it and put it back together and -- what do you know? -- he got it working again. Next: cleaning out the Internet's tubes.

So life after the Senate is full of adventures.

The Ensign Files (Cont.)

Speaking of life after your political career tanks, l'Affaire Ensign had been briefly overshadowed by Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and his taxpayer-funded search for a love ranch on the pampas so he could be with his Argentine girlfriend. But last week it zoomed back to the forefront.

In fact, Sen. John Ensign's sexual affair with former campaign staffer Cynthia Hampton, the wife of his former chief of staff -- and news last week that the Nevada Republican's parents magnanimously gave the Hamptons $96,000 "out of concern" for the couple and their kids -- now looks a far better bet to get us through the traditional summer news doldrums.

However, even though Ensign himself claimed "extortion" to describe Doug Hampton's requests for money, it is unclear whether anyone in the prosecutorial world is actually taking a hard look at the goings-on.

Everyone's conduct in the matter may raise questions, we were told, but it is far from clear whether there is sufficient basis to initiate a criminal investigation. (There's still the matter of an alleged severance payment to Cynthia Hampton by Ensign of at least $25,000. That payment was not reported, as required by law, to the Federal Election Commission.)

It's also unclear if there is going to be any action by the fearsome Senate ethics committee. A potentially key witness, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is a close friend of Ensign's and urged him to end the affair. But Coburn said last week he would "never" testify before the committee or in court. He noted that he counseled Ensign "as a physician" -- Coburn is an obstetrician and gynecologist -- and as an "ordained deacon," and therefore could not be compelled to testify because of doctor-patient privilege and religious privilege.

That seems pretty conclusive to us -- after all, if a guy can't trust his OB-GYN, who can he trust? But some lawyers think neither assertion, though quite creative, would stand up in court. (There's little chance at this point that the committee will haul Coburn in to testify, with or without some goofy claim of privilege.)

Even so, Coburn's got other options, perhaps better ones, we were advised. He could hustle on out and get a law degree real quick, then claim retroactive attorney-client privilege -- a recognized and formidable barrier to compelled testimony. To be absolutely bulletproof, however, he may want to marry Ensign -- they'd have to travel to Iowa -- and then rely on the ironclad spousal privilege.

SBA's Jackson Watch

Small Business Administration staffers were hard at work Tuesday afternoon when they noticed their Internet connections had slowed dramatically. Hard to figure out what was happening, but they may have suspected it could have had something to do with the fact that so many of them were using their computers to watch streaming video of Michael Jackson's funeral.

Then SBA officials sent out a notice that everyone's streaming video capacity was being disabled for the afternoon because so many people were watching the funeral. There was "no crash" of the entire system, an SBA spokesman assured us. "All essential functions continued." By Wednesday, it was small business as usual.

Moving On

As expected, the White House last week announced the nomination of former 15-term congressman James A. Leach (R-Iowa) to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. And, as we reported a couple months ago, Phil Murphy, former investment banker and national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is the nominee to be ambassador to Germany. But it's not about the money, as they say. Murphy, while at Goldman Sachs, headed the Frankfurt office from 1993 to 1997.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company