A Senate Fearful of Whitewash

The Sun finds itself in the rather lonely position of opposing the Senate's decision (by a vote of 94-6) to ask the federal judiciary to order Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., to turn over all of his diaries and notes to its Ethics Committee. We don't take this position out of support for Senator Packwood. We don't think of ourselves as standing with him.

We think of ourselves as standing with three of his more respectable colleagues -- Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo. and Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. -- for fairness and the constitutional right to privacy. That trio tried and failed to get the Senate to require the Ethics Committee to use other methods to determine Senator Packwood's guilt or innocence on sexual harassment and other charges now leveled at him.


Senator Specter was persuasive in reminding senators why there is a Fourth Amendment in the first place. That amendment forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures" of such things as diaries. The drafters of the Bill of Rights wrote it out of abhorrence at so-called "general warrants" which the British had used in fishing expeditions against American colonists. The Ethics Committee's subpoena is precisely that. It is so broad that any papers or records in Senator Packwood's possession can be seized; and any impropriety that turns up can be publicized and prosecuted.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., argued that the Senate had to treat Mr. Packwood that way, since all other citizens would be so treated if they refused to give a Senate committee what it demanded. Not true. As Senator Specter pointed out, the governing Supreme Court precedent requires that such demands be specific about what crimes are being investigated and what evidence is being sought.


The Levin argument hints at one of the things behind that 94-6 vote. The public is very anti-Congress these days. Many senators are afraid that there will be the perception of whitewash they are fair to the unpopular Mr. Packwood.

Any waverers had their minds made up when Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., took the floor to say that a vote against subpoenaing the Packwood diaries would be interpreted by women voters as a message that "the cards are stacked against" women who complain of sexual abuse.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., enunciated another reason for the 94-6 vote. He said Senator Packwood's "flaws damage the institution of the Senate." Many senators put the institution above all else. The flaw he had in mind was not the original harassment and cover-up, but the "continuing damage [Senator Packwood] is doing to the body by prolonging this matter." The Senate comes first.

The Senate can take care of Senator Packwood without being unfair to him. It can make its case against him without violating rights to privacy in a way that can come back to harm other unpopular senators. We hope the courts force it to.