Punishing Packwood


Excruciating is the word for the Senate Ethics Committee as it contemplates the fallout of its party-line tie vote not to hold public hearings on sexual misconduct and abuse of office charges against Sen. Bob Packwood. It now must decide whether to censure the Oregon Republican, strip him of his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee or expel him from its ranks.

Republican senators who went to the mat for a colleague now find themselves under pressure to select a severe form of punishment. Yet if Mr. Packwood is kicked out of office or loses his chairmanship for his admitted "boorish behavior" toward women, some parties to this dispute have to ask: Who wins?

* Not the National Women's Political Caucus and other feminist organizations. His personal misconduct notwithstanding, Mr. Packwood has been a persistent champion of women's causes. While public hearings would undoubtedly rivet national attention sexual harassment to an extent unmatched since the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation in 1991, there is no assurance there would be a payoff like the election of four women senators in 1992. Indeed, "angry white males" were key to the 1994 conservative landslide.

* Not moderate Republicans. If the far more conservative Sen. William Roth were to replace Mr. Packwood as Finance Committee chairman, one of the chief defenses against the excesses of the right-wing revolution in the House would be gone.

* Not the Senate itself. For 31 years, the Senate Ethics Committee has been fairly successful in keeping partisan passion outside its investigation of wrongdoing by members. No more. Already a lot of damage has been done within the committee itself, which found its three Republicans blocking three Democrats who sought public hearings on the Packwood case. Then came a nasty Senate debate in which the committee was upheld by a narrow, highly partisan vote of 52-48.

The committee is to release thousands of pages of testimony when it renders its verdict next month. Once again, Mr. Packwood's advances to women, many of them in his employ, will be laid out in vivid detail. Once again, there will be demands for Mr. Packwood's head if the committee itself does not drop the guillotine.

The Oregon senator refuses to resign. It seems he will endure any kind of humiliation, any kind of invasion of his privacy, in order to hold onto power. The case is complicated because his hold on power works to the benefit of many of the same people who seek his ouster. Given the Finance Committee's central role in key legislation coming to a head in the 104th Congress, we believe the public interest would be well served if a chastened, chastised Bob Packwood holds onto his chairmanship.

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