Washington -- IN THE CIRCUS that the Clarence Thomas confirmation has now become, there is much more at stake than whether President Bush's Supreme Court nominee makes it. The Senate Judiciary Committee's handling of the 11th-hour allegations of sexual harassmente put the already beleaguered Congress on the defensive as seldom before in recent times.
Public respect for Congress was deplorably low even before this latest circus arrived on Capitol Hill. Its inability to control the federal deficit, a failure in which the president shared, and the stalemate between the Republican White House and the Democratic-controlled House and Senate that produced government by veto had long ago earned the contempt of voters.
So did Congress' inability to cope with the savings and loan scandal, as well as other questions of ethical conduct by individual members, ranging from outlandish overseas junketeering to charges of sexual abuse, one of which resulted in the ousting of a Republican congressman.
Rousing particular voter anger were the large pay raises first the House and then the Senate voted themselves, and just recently the disclosure that many House members repeatedly bounced checks in the House bank without penalty and ran up thousands of dollars in unpaid meal tabs in the private congressional restaurants.
All these things have fed the campaign to impose term limits on members of Congress in the way some states have already clamped a lid on service in their legislatures. Now, the handling of the Thomas nomination by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and of Bush's nomination of Robert Gates to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency by the Senate Intelligence Committee, have added more combustible fuel to the fire of public ire.
The centerpiece gripe now, especially but not exclusively among women's groups, is that the Senate Judiciary Committee of 14 males gave short shrift to the allegations of law professor Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas' at two federal agencies, that he sexually harassed her on the job. The charges are particularly pointed in that one of Thomas' functions as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was to act against such harassment by other employers.
Committee aides are scurrying about now distributing a chronology of the committee staff's contacts with Hill, the burden of which is that her insistence on confidentiality was the key reason her allegations were not brought before the full Senate, and the country, until they were leaked to the news media last weekend. An aide to Committee Chairman Joseph Biden argues that the committee members who saw the FBI report on Hill were sensitive to the allegations but were just not convinced.
Now the plan, according the Biden aide, is to take testimony not only from Thomas and Hill at public hearings but also to hear witnesses who may corroborate Hill's story and who can testify about the logs of phone calls from Hill to Thomas that the nominee's supporters say prove she was on good terms with him in the years after the workplace harassment was alleged to have taken place. If you think what has happened so far has been a three-ring circus, just wait.
Meanwhile, what appeared to be sure confirmation for Thomas is now up in the air. Much obviously will depend on whether individual senators believe Thomas or Hill. And this issue, unlike Roe vs. Wade or other questions concerning Thomas' judicial philosophy, is not one on which he can say that he has no opinion.
Thomas got to the brink of confirmation by stonewalling, and the Judiciary Committee let him get away with it. In the process, though, the nominee's credibility has been impaired and he will have to do better against a woman who has already demonstrated in her own press conference that she can be a formidable adversary.
The committee, however, has its own credibility problem now, as does the whole Senate, in demonstrating it does not take sexual harassment lightly. Those senators uncertain about Thomas but who were going along with him before these charges were raised could wind up voting against him to prove their own sensitivity, and that is a peril now facing his nomination.