The Senate Ethics Committee seems unable to decide whether to hold public hearings into the alleged sexual and official misconduct of Sen. Bob Packwood. This should not be a tough call: The hearings should be open. Unfortunately, logic appears to be eluding the panel, which is considering breaking precedent by closing the sessions. Every major case before the committee has had a public airing. Why should this be an exception?
Senate buddies of the Oregon Republican complain that public hearings could create a circus-like atmosphere (as if that’s rare in Congress). That must be weighed against the greater harm of public mistrust stemming from a closed investigation.
And the cynical threats of some Senate Republicans aren’t exactly elevating the debate. They warn that if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) keeps pushing for open hearings, the Senate might investigate Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s involvement in the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident or allegations that Democrat Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, once improperly intervened with federal regulators on behalf of a friend. If Republicans have the real goods on any senator, they should come forward. In the meantime, the case against Packwood needs to be dealt with. Now. In the open.
Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went so far as to say last Friday that he will not schedule a meeting of his panel until Boxer drops her plan to introduce a measure to require a full Senate vote on holding public hearings. McConnell and Boxer are, of course, engaging in obvious partisan politicking. But the principle of open meetings has no party registration. On this one McConnell is wrong.
Two months ago, the Ethics Committee issued the legislative equivalent of an indictment against Packwood, finding that there was “substantial credible evidence” to begin hearings on allegations of sexual harassment (17 incidents between 1969 and 1990), misuse of his office for personal gain and tampering with evidence (he is alleged to have altered his personal diaries regarding some of the incidents at issue). Packwood must answer all these charges in a public forum.
If the senator is found guilty, his punishment could include formal rebuke, loss of his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee or expulsion from the Senate; the last is an extremely rare and some say unlikely occurrence.
Republicans have circled their wagons around Packwood because he is a key player in budget negotiations and his downfall would not play well for the party. But the GOP needs to think further: What message does all this send to America’s women?