In its anguished handling of the case against Sen. Bob Packwood, who resigned yesterday rather than face expulsion, the U.S. Senate is responding to an institutional imperative to protect itself. The Senate Ethics Committee's unanimous recommendation that the Oregon Republican be expelled was the most severe penalty at its disposal. It represented a decision to avoid lurid public hearings reminiscent of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill spectacle that elevated sexual harassment to
the highest rung of politically incorrect behavior.
In a historical context, the expulsion of Mr. Packwood would have been the first since a number of Southern senators were booted out during the Civil War. In severity it would have equaled the expulsion threatened against Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey in 1980 after he had been convicted of bribery. Expulsion also would have been a greater penalty than the censure imposed upon such Senate miscreants as Joseph McCarthy, Thomas Dodd and Herman Talmadge.
While expulsion would have been excessive if judged solely on the past record, the public now demands much higher standards for performance in public office and behavior in the workplace. The charges against Mr. Packwood -- his attempts to kiss and paw women in his employ, his alterations of private diary material demanded by the Ethics Committee, his use of public office to try to get his ex-wife a job -- were considered unlike any that had come before.
These weighty questions will not be settled now that Mr. Packwood has resigned as Harrison Williams did 15 years ago. Nevertheless, this will not -- and should not -- put an end to arguments over changing mores versus past precedent in the way the Senate seeks to punish errant members.
The stunning move to force Mr. Packwood from the Senate came large measure from tactical political considerations. Last month, the Oregonian's Republican colleagues came to his defense in a 52-48 vote against public hearings, which he then opposed. But during the congressional recess, Mr. Packwood suddenly switched and demanded to confront his accusers publicly.
GOP senators, including Ethics Committee chairman Mitch McConnell, evidently felt betrayed and left hanging in the wind. They turned against Mr. Packwood, probably figuring their party had more to lose from public hearings than the setback to GOP legislative plans implicit in the loss of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. This panel has jurisdiction over taxes, Medicare, welfare and other issues at the top of the GOP agenda.
As for the Democrats, whose party has a strong feminist constituency, they would seem to be in a win-win situation in the Packwood case. But in ousting Mr. Packwood, they have ejected a GOP moderate and opened the way for conservative Sen. William Roth of Delaware to take over the Senate Finance Committee. Hard-ball politics is a series of trade-offs.