WASHINGTON -- Allegations that U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood sexually harassed 10 women who worked with him underscore a seamy reality: Congress is like a plantation where powerful legislators feel free to romp.
"I think they ought to set up a Harassers Anonymous on Capitol Hill," said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Many of these male leaders have admirable positions regarding women's rights but really anti-social attitudes toward their women staffers."
Congress has exempted itself from the full force of federal laws against sexual discrimination. And though Capitol Hill women say harassment has declined in recent years, they have little confidence in the current in-house complaint procedures.
Women's groups yesterday called on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the complaints against Mr. Packwood, R-Ore. They were joined by two Democratic House members from his home state. There was no comment from the Ethics Committee.
Mr, Packwood, the ranking Republican on the tax-writing Finance Committee, has apologized for any "discomfort or embarrassment" he may have caused. A firm supporter of abortion rights and other feminist causes, he survived a tough re-election campaign.
The Washington Post reported that the 60-year-old senator had grabbed, fondled or tried to kiss 10 women. They included staffers, lobbyists and a job-seeker. It said the incidents it alleged took place from 1969, when Mr. Packwood came to the Senate, to 1990. It was reported that in some cases Mr. Packwood had been drinking.
Mr. Packwood remained on vacation yesterday, his whereabouts kept secret. Aides said yesterday that he would not respond to specific allegations. One aide also said that the senator would not resign.
Women who work in Congress say sexual harassment is part of a pattern of behavior that is giving way on Capitol Hill -- but not quickly enough.
"It was very common to have to watch your bottom on the elevator," said Jean Dugan, a Senate aide who headed a task force on sexual harassment. "As more women gain power, a lot of these guys are starting to recognize that behavior they thought was no problem is wrong, and they are thinking twice."
After last year's confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, many lawmakers adopted formal policies barring sexual harassment in their offices.
But there are still powerful incentives for a woman who has been victimized to keep quiet, Ms. Dugan said.
"Most women don't stay more than a few years, and if you want another job, you need those references," she said.
Ironically, Mr. Packwood was one of the senators to adopt an anti-harassment policy before the hearings, in which Anita Hill charged the nominee with harassment.
Congressional employees have less protection against sexual discrimination than workers in private industry, who can take their employers to court and seek damages.
By contrast, congressional workers must go before an in-house complaint board, and they have limited rights to claim damages.
Senate employees can appeal the rulings of their in-house board in federal court, but House employees lack that right.