WASHINGTON -- To the surprise of no one, Sen. Bob Packwood has decided he won't insist on public hearings before the Senate Ethics Committee on charges of sexual harassment and official misconduct that have been hanging for 30months.
Further, there appears to be considerable sentiment in the Senate for the committee not to exercise its option to conduct such hearings before ruling on the case. Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi said the other day that he opposed hearings because they could be, as he put it, "embarrassing to the Senate." The calendar may say 1995, but to some senators it apparently is still 1950.
What should be embarrassing to the Senate is the fact that the Packwood investigation has been running for so long -- the original charges of sexual misconduct were disclosed by the Washington Post shortly after Packwood's re-election in 1992 -- while the Oregon Republican has gone about his business as usual. And since the Republicans won control last November, Packwood has been functioning as one of the authentic powers in the Senate as chairman of the Finance Committee.
The possibility of embarrassing the Senate has not deterred the committee from conducting public hearings in other high-visibility cases of official misconduct, including those of five senators accused of unethical behavior in the efforts they made for a major political campaign contributor, savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr.
But this time there is the awkward business of sexual conduct. In finding what it called "substantial credible evidence" of misconduct several weeks ago, the committee cited 18 specific instances in which Packwood was accused of fondling or kissing or otherwise groping women he encountered in the course of his political life as a candidate or senator.
So there is the prospect of many of those women coming before the committee to describe for television cameras how the senator cornered them and, in several cases, forced his tongue into their mouths. Even the audience for the O.J. trial might be diverted by such spicy stuff.
Packwood also has been accused of seeking a job from lobbyists for his former wife and of tampering with evidence the committee was seeking for its investigation, specifically by altering diaries he kept over much of the period in question.
Throughout all of this, Packwood has taken the predictable position that when all the facts were known, his constituents and the Senate would be reassured. It was, among other things, a way of stalling demands from angry constituents that he resign because he had been re-elected under false pretenses.
Other members of the Senate say, in fact, that Packwood has been a master of stalling tactics -- apparently following the axiom of criminal lawyers that one way to win a weak case is to "wear out the prosecution" with delays.
If the Senate lets that happen, it will be the clearest possible evidence that the Republicans in charge don't have the foggiest idea about how the voters view politicians these days. One of the clear messages of the 1994 election was that Americans are deeply suspicious of the political establishment in Washington and disgusted by the way things are done here.
Given that context, the notion of the Ethics Committee reaching a decision on the Packwood case without a public hearing is bizarre. If the committee settles on some level of punishment, how are the voters -- particularly those in Oregon -- going to know whether the verdict is justified by the facts?
The committee and the Senate have many options. Packwood could be simply reprimanded by the committee or, if the facts warrant, formally censured by the entire Senate, a punishment viewed as very serious within the Senate if perhaps less so elsewhere. He could lose his chairmanship or even be expelled from the Senate, which is considered extremely unlikely.
Any of those things might be considered "embarrassing to the Senate" -- but hardly more so than a decision that sweeps under the rug charges that have been festering for 30 months.