Ethics Committee Stiffens Standards In Packwood Vote
Unanimous tally may lead to senator's ouster
FOR the last 33 months, there have been two distinct debates about Sen. Bob Packwood's conduct. In Washington, the discussion hinged on issues like privacy, partisanship, and historical precedent. The rest of America, meanwhile, was trying to figure out why the Oregon Republican hadn't been chased out of town.Skip to next paragraph
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This week, the Senate Ethics Committee gave its answer to both.
In a stunning unanimous vote, the panel's three Democrats and three Republicans recommended Senator Packwood's expulsion from Congress for actions they deemed ''reprehensible.''
By its action, the ethics panel tried to send disgruntled voters a clear message: Congress will no longer tolerate members that it deems to be unscrupulous.
The step might help restore some lost public faith in the nation's legislature at a time when half of all Americans believe its members are corrupt, say some expert observors.
''What they have done is historic,'' says Robert Bennett, a former special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee. ''The committee has shown that it will hold its members to an ethical standard in accordance with the privileged position they hold. They have put aside their partisan feelings and upheld the integrity of the institution.''
Senator Packwood, however, strongly denies that his past actions merit such a drastic step. He condemned the expulsion vote as an ''unfair'' and ''outrageous'' ruling that would burden the institution in years to come.
Unless Packwood resigns, the full Senate will soon vote on the expulsion order. If 67 members approve, Packwood would become the first United States senator to be expelled since the Civil War and only the second member of Congress forced out for corruption.
The ruling comes at a time when Congress has become increasingly inclined to discipline its own. In the last 15 years, more members have been investigated and cited for misconduct that in the entire previous history of the institution.
''This ruling sends a strong message that the Senate is concerned about its image,'' says Michael Josephson, director of the Josephson Institute for Ethics in California. ''If you had asked me what the chances of an expulsion order were before this meeting, I would have said 2 percent.''
While he thinks the ruling was appropriate, Mr. Josephson worries that it might raise the ethical bar so high that some current members of Congress will resign, and other qualified candidates won't run at all.
THE problem, he says, is that Congress has more investigative resources at its disposal than ever before, and that in many cases, investigations uncover far more transgressions than they had set out to find. The Packwood probe, he notes, was initially concerned only with charges that the senator had made unwanted sexual advances to at least 18 women, most of whom worked for him.
''It's like trying to keep the IRS auditors away,'' Josephson says. ''If they start an investigation, they're liable to find something. Few people in public life would stand up to such intense scrutiny.... It could create a climate of fear.''
In his defense, Packwood echoes these concerns. He maintains that he should be allowed to face his accusers and should not lose his job over a series of alleged incidents that occurred as far back as 25 years. ''What is the signal here?'' he asked after the ruling. ''Are we going to say we're going to go back a quarter century? Maybe that's the signal we want to send. If it is, everybody ought to be forewarned.''