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.
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.
But, say former and current staff members of Hill ethics committees, the work of these committees is really about 80 percent prevention and 20 percent sensation. That is, the committees spend most of their time answering questions, issuing interpretive rulings, and updating codes so that lawmakers can stay out of the kind of trouble that brews public distrust.
"Policing is after the fact. For every two or three [investigations], there are probably 200 others who stayed out of trouble because they checked with us," says a staff member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
"Though we don't have to remind people that you don't kiss someone who is not expecting it," he adds, in a reference to the allegations against Packwood.
The first orientation seminar held this month for Congress' 110 incoming representatives was an ethics discussion. Staff briefers explain that new members, when handed the 500-page House Ethics Manual, are "surprised" at the amount of detail of which they must be aware.
"Some rules are just not logical or easy to understand," explains a House ethics staffer. For example, many newcomers are startled to learn that although campaigns are run by free help from volunteers, a politician, once elected, cannot use volunteers - even family friends or willing senior citizens - in official work. Obtaining a shield
Any dealing that a representative or congressman has cleared with the ethics committees' staff attorneys is considered shielded against prosecution.
While ethics investigations on both sides of Congress are always painful for elected officials who only reluctantly judge their peers, the Packwood case is particularly difficult given the circumstances.
Packwood is one of the Senate's most respected, longest-serving members, with a record of support for women's rights. And the accusations come on the heels of last year's messy Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in which a former employee, Anita Hill, accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment. Critics lambasted the Senate as an insensitive men's club because of the all-male Senate panel's grilling of Ms. Hill.
This adds to what lawmakers feel is a no-win situation in serving on ethics committees. Critics on the outside constantly suggest that the ethics system is essentially a "fox guarding the henhouse" situation in which, at most, a slap on the wrist is all an ethics committee can apply. On the inside, a junior lawmaker serving on the committee could get political heat from colleagues just for doing the job well.
The committee is so unpopular, for example, that right now, the House and Senate ethics committees are the only ones in Congress that have no designated chairmen for the new session. No one wants to do it, say those familiar with the situation.
But some see the congressional ethics system as productive in spite of its flaws.
"Even if they end up going light on Packwood, the mere exposure to that has a deterrent effect," observes Robert Fullinwider, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland Center for Philosophy and Public Policy.