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Congress Judges Itself, But Does So Reluctantly

Packwood ethics case first on sexual harassment for Senate committee

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1992



WASHINGTON

SEXUAL harassment charges against Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon loom as the very uncomfortable first order of business for the Senate ethics committee in the new year.

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It is the first time the committee has investigated a sexual harassment case. Though unique in that respect, the case is part of a broader, long-term evolution of an ethical code by which Capitol Hill lawmakers reluctantly sit in judgment of each other.

"Senator Packwood should be taken in the context of two decades of change on Capitol Hill - a change in the norms of human relations that includes [everything from] drinking to the House banking scandal," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congress and Presidential Studies at American University.

The decision of the Senate ethics committee to begin an inquiry of the Packwood case, in which 16 women who worked with him or for him during the past three decades have alleged he made unwanted sexual overtures towards them, "represents another ratcheting up in improving the ways members and staff treat each other," says Mr. Thurber.

Both houses of Congress in the 1960s formalized separate codes of ethics and the committees to enforce and interpret them. `Civil rights' tardy

But only in the past two years did both houses of Congress set up offices of fair employment practices - these serve the equivalent function of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that handles cases in the workplace of discrimination and harassment based on race, sex, religion, and disability.

(Congress passes many laws that it is exempt from. Though it has recently held itself to the civil rights standards it created for the rest of the nation, Congress and its staff are not subject to minimum wage, overtime, and workplace health and safety laws.)

Thurber says that ethics inquiries in Congress follow the norms of society like the wake of a boat, and it usually takes a scandal to prompt politicians - "who really don't like to police themselves" - to face an issue that may have been lurking for some time without publicity.

For example, until ethics were codified and dealt with formally by committees, cases of questionable conduct were taken up alternately by special committees or by votes of the full body in order to censure an accused member.

Among early ethical infractions were those of the two congressmen in the late 1700s who spat on each other and then mixed it up on the House floor using a cane and fireplace tongs as weapons. Later, in 1870, three congressmen sold military academy appointments.

Only in the 1960s and 1970s did questions of improper personal financial gain - such as campaign funding, employment of people for unofficial purposes, and the acceptance of gifts - begin to shake the conscience of Congress in earnest. And sex-related scandals didn't begin to register as an ethical problem for national lawmakers to be concerned with until the 1970s.