A Question of Ethics

TO get to the question now before the Senate Ethics Committee - whether to hold public hearings on misconduct charges against Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon - it's been necessary to wade through too much partisan bickering.

The chairman of the committee, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, imposed a ''cooling off'' period after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California said she would seek a floor vote on public hearings if the panel didn't act. Mr. McConnell said the investigation wouldn't resume until Ms. Boxer backed down. She did not, but McConnell declared victory and said the committee would reconvene this week. Boxer came back with a threat: If the Ethics Committee does not vote for public hearings, she will introduce an amendment to force a vote in the full Senate. If Boxer does that, Republicans say, they might amend her legislation to include misconduct hearings for Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Tom Daschle.

Got all that?

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The war of words began in May, when the committee issued a report finding ''substantial credible evidence'' that Mr. Packwood made sexually aggressive moves against 17 women between 1969 and 1990. Also under investigation: whether the senator tried to obstruct the committee's investigation, and whether he attempted to solicit a job for his wife from lobbyists while the couple was divorcing.

''Substantial credible evidence'' must be grounds for public hearings. Packwood testified to the Ethics Committee behind closed doors in the spring, and he should give the same testimony openly. That said, we hope these hearings will be free of the circus-type atmosphere that too often pervades when public officials are called to testify on personal matters.

This case is a test not only of Packwood but also of the Ethics Committee and how willing it is to do its job. Its members should try to put political rhetoric aside and vote for open hearings because, in one senator's words, it's ''the right thing.''

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