ON Capitol Hill and back home in Oregon, Sen. Bob Packwood (R) is feeling increased political heat. Allegations of sexual misconduct have eroded support among Oregonians, apparently including his core supporters. And the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, which is investigating the charges, promises to be a very tough venue for the senator.
The work of the committee in the Packwood case, which a congressional source says "is in a time-consuming, fact-gathering stage," comes against the backdrop of new public sensitivities about sexual harassment and the perception that Congress somehow sees itself above the law in many ways. Following the Clarence Thomas hearings, lawmakers know they are under pressure to take seriously such charges - especially given the low public regard in which Congress is held.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post survey published Feb. 21 reveals that 34 percent of female workers surveyed who work on Capitol Hill said they had been sexually harassed on the job, 11 percent by lawmakers.
"What this comes down to is not just whether the Senate gets `it,' but whether it gets anything at all," says Mark Wiener, spokesman of a group called Oregonians for Ethical Representation. Ethics panel formed this month
The Senate panel chairman is Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, a former state attorney general who has prosecuted sex crimes, wrote his state's "rape shield law" to protect victims from courtroom interrogation, and is pushing for congressional reform. At his side is Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, another lawmaker known for supporting feminist causes.
As the committee formed this month, Mr. Bryan and vice-chairman Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky announced two investigation guidelines applauded by women's groups and others urging a thorough probe. First, Mr. Packwood's accusers, who number 23, will not be subjected to cross-examination about their private lives. Second, the committee will go beyond the sexual-misconduct charges to investigate allegations that Packwood and his staff tried to "intimidate and discredit the alleged victims."
Together, this broadens the investigation and narrows Packwood's means of defense. "That's an important signal that the committee is going to be very tough on Packwood," says Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch.
Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee is considering six petitions to deny Packwood his Senate seat on grounds that he unfairly won reelection to a fifth term by maneuvering to delay publication of press stories about sexual misconduct until after the November election.
"We allege that Senator Packwood by virtue of his lying to the press and the people of Oregon ... in effect defrauded people of a fair election," said Mr. Wiener, whose new bipartisan group represents labor unions, senior citizens, abortion-rights advocates, and women's organizations.
Without addressing charges that he made sexual advances to staff members, campaign workers, and lobbyists over a 21-year period, Packwood has called his actions "stupid ... boorish ... wrong." But he has been careful to distinguish between what he says were "unwelcome and insensitive" actions and sexual harassment, which involves illegally threatening subordinates.
In his home state, Packwood has had a rough time convincing people he is the victim of political and press hounding, and that as a senior senator he can still work for his constituents. He has been met by protesters around the state. The state's largest newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, which endorsed his candidacy, has called for his resignation. And his standing in statewide public-opinion surveys has slipped noticeably. Poll shows majority believe charges
A newspaper-television poll published last week shows a clear majority believing that the allegations of sexual harassment "are probably true" (74 percent), and that Packwood is "trying to cover up the scandal" (56 percent).
Meanwhile, those who feel that Packwood's behavior "shouldn't be considered very serious because society's standards were different back when the most serious of the alleged incidents occurred" has dropped from 30 percent in December to 17 percent. And those who think the senator "is the victim of a witch hunt" has likewise dropped from 31 percent to 22 percent. The response to these kinds of questions, Professor Lunch says, "shows his core support is eroding."
Packwood says he will not resign, and the Oregon state constitution does not allow for recall of federally elected officials. His opponents are concentrating efforts on the Rules Committee, where a recommendation that Packwood's election be declared invalid requires just a simple majority in the full Senate to pass. By contrast, severest action by the ethics committee, expulsion or censure - which includes loss of seniority - takes two-thirds approval by the Senate.