The Senate Ethics Committee did not do itself, the entire Senate, or the public any favors this week by voting to keep the doors closed in hearings involving charges of sexual harassment and misconduct against veteran Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
On a party-line vote - three Democrats for open hearings and three Republicans against - the proposal to make the hearings public failed. This prompted a chorus of protests from feminists and others rightly concerned about Packwood's behavior.One critic, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is seeking to offer a resolution to the full Senate asking for open hearings. Like the committee vote, that effort threatens to become a party struggle.
Fortunately, the committee did vote 6-0 to make public all documents connected with the 31-month investigation, including witness statements and even excerpts from Packwood's own diaries.
There are a number of reasons to be concerned about keeping the ethics hearings closed.
First, as a result of the tie vote, the many women who charged Packwood with making crass sexual advances over a 20-year period will not have a chance to personally testify before the committee, although Packwood himself has had plenty of opportunities to appear, answer questions and defend himself. This is anything but even-handed.
Second, keeping the doors closed only feeds the suspicion that many of the male members of the Senate Old Boys Club are interested only in covering up for one of their own.
Third, the closed-door approach and the split committee vote turns the Packwood case into a partisan tug-of-war instead of a search for truth and an appropriate Senate response.
It is true that open Ethics Committee hearings could turn into a public circus with political overtones - something the Republicans clearly would like to avoid. But the GOP could have - and should have - vigorously pressured Packwood to resign when the charges first surfaced in 1993.
Instead, Packwood - elected to his fifth term just before the scandal erupted - has clung to office. Moreover, since the Republican takeover of Congress last year, Packwood's seniority has landed him the powerful job of chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Now that it has backed away from open hearings, the Senate Ethics Committee has essentially completed its 31-month-long investigation and will now begin debating what punishment - if any - to recommend that the full Senate impose on Packwood.
Punishment options range from a reprimand to expulsion from the Senate. At this point, the latter hardly seems likely, but the vote is sure to be tangled and bitter.
If the Senate does not expel Packwood, it should at least strip him of his finance chairmanship. It is a stain on the reputation of the Senate to have Packwood, with his admitted failings, continue to hold such a prominent and powerful position.