The Senate Prepares to Cast Stones


Washington. Roll Call newspaper has been covering Capitol Hill for 38 years, so by now it should be unshockable. Nevertheless, it is recoiling, and the entire political class should be, from the idea the Senate Rules Committee is entertaining concerning sexual-harassment allegations against Oregon's Republican Senator Bob Packwood, who last November was elected to a fifth term.

The idea is that Mr. Packwood should be unseated because he lied to the Washington Post and misled other media before the November election. "This claim," says Roll Call, "is so lame, so downright weird, that we can't believe a committee that has far better things to do is wasting more than eight seconds on it." Hush, Roll Call. This could be hilarious.

As Election Day neared, the Post, pursuing rumors long circulating here and in Oregon, was investigating allegations of sexual misconduct -- aggressive and unwanted physical attention -- by Senator Packwood toward various women over a 20-year period. Shortly before Election Day he denied to the Post that he had behaved improperly. He allegedly misled Oregon media about the Post's investigation and he allegedly tried to discredit or intimidate some of his accusers.

Nineteen days after Mr. Packwood won the election, the Post published a lengthy documentation of the allegations. The senator apologized for unspecified actions that were "just plain wrong."

The Constitution empowers each house to judge the elections and qualifications of its members, and to punish members, even with expulsion. Two clear grounds for expulsion would be treason or bribery. A third would be vote fraud, such as stuffing ballot boxes, rigging voting machines, registering ineligible voters -- physical acts that assault the integrity of the democratic process.

But the people petitioning the Rules Committee to unseat Senator Packwood are arguing that he was not "duly elected." They want to expand the idea of election fraud beyond irregularities regarding the casting or counting of votes, to include the making of false statements or the omission of information by a candidate during a campaign that could have affected voters' decisions.

If the Senate vastly expands its activities as judge of who has and who has not conducted fully candid campaigns, it had better brace itself. There will be a flood of requests by losing candidates for reviews of the veracity and completeness of statements made by winning candidates.

The anti-Packwood forces say they want the Senate to affirm only a "narrow rule" that subjects a candidate to exclusion from the Senate if when campaigning he or she was deliberately misleading about "personal, historical" matters.

But suppose, say Mr. Packwood's lawyers, a candidate falsely answers "no" or "artfully dodges" an answer to questions such as "Have you ever committed adultery?" or "Have you ever sought to avoid service in the armed forces of the United States in time of war?" or "Have you ever used illegal drugs?" Does the Senate fully want to undertake such supposedly "narrow" inquiries, to determine who has been "duly elected"?

Besides, why should the Senate be concerned only with candor concerning "personal, historical" details? Is not candor about public policy intentions at least as important? Mr. Packwood's attorneys mischievously suggest a "hypothetical situation" of a candidate who "in his campaign repeatedly and eloquently promises that he will support a middle-class tax cut. Just after the election, he reverses his position and says that he will support a middle-class tax increase."

What senator wants to say that a candidate has an affirmative obligation to disclose damaging "personal, historical" information about himself, or an obligation to provide all information about his intentions that are germane to an informed decision by voters? The Rules Committee is clearly entertaining an idea that could add to the public stock of merriment at the expense of the political class, especially the new crowd in the capital.

It is just seven months since Bill Clinton ended the Democratic Party's presidential slump (five losses in the last six elections) with a campaign promise to lighten the middle-class tax burden and featuring many other remarkably perishable promises. And now the Democratic-controlled Senate is inviting contemplation of this thought: Perhaps the winner of an election forfeits his right to the office he won if he used tactical deceptions to tiptoe past Election Day.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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