The Packwood hearings

July 27, 1995

It is hard to believe Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is opposing public Ethics Committee hearings on charges against fellow Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. Senator Packwood stands accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with 17 women, obstructing a Senate committee investigation and abuse of office. "Accused" doesn't mean "guilty," but the Ethics Committee, of which Senator McConnell is chairman, has already found that there is "substantial credible evidence" that Senator Packwood behaved as charged.

By the Senate's own rules and traditions such a finding means there should be public hearings by the Ethics Committee. Since 1977, when the committee's existing rules were adopted, charges against every senator that proceeded from the "inquiry" stage to the "investigation" stage were made -- and responded to -- in open committee hearings. But Senator McConnell has refused to let the committee vote on open hearings. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat not on the committee, has threatened to force a full Senate vote on this matter. To which Senator McConnell has (1) called for a "cooling off" period, and (2) threatened to investigate such things as the 26-year-old Chappaquiddick scandal involving Sen. Ted Kennedy.

As for cooling off, this case has dragged on so long that it's down to around 32 degrees. The average time between the beginning of the "inquiry" stage and the beginning of public hearings in the four similar cases before now was 14 months. The Packwood inquiry began 31 months ago.

As for (2) -- well, Senator McConnell does sound a little overheated. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, spoke for most of his colleagues when he said such "retaliation" would be "inappropriate."

Former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming favors closed door hearings on the grounds that the Senate is already held in such low regard that it has nothing to lose. Wrong. The Senate has plenty to lose. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a member of the Ethics Committee, was exactly right when she said last year, in calling for public hearings, "the American people think we have a double standard about disciplining infractions of conduct: one for ourselves, and one for other people. The Senate needs to affirm its honor."

Senator Packwood may be able to excuse or explain his alleged misconduct. But not behind closed doors. And his honor is not the only one that will be tarnished if he is allowed to do so.

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