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THE NATION : POLITICS : In the Senate, Even Ethics Prove Partisan

August 06, 1995|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — It is time to memorialize the revealing footnote to history that emerged from the recent Senate fight over whether to hold public hearings in the sexual-harassment case involving Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon.

The Senate ethics committee rejected public hearings. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, led a campaign to have the Senate order them anyway. Boxer did her work with maximum vigor and volume, claiming that any other course would constitute a betrayal of the women of America.

Packwood's fellow Republican, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, said Boxer was "the most partisan senator I have ever known." This is quite a tribute, coming as it does from a man who, as friends and foes allow, knows from partisanship.

But Dole's comment was not just an exercise in hypocrisy. It also reflected the special pain ethics issues cause the Senate and the resentment many senators feel toward those who refuse to recognize it.

Almost everything is partisan in the Congress--a fact fully apparent these days. On domestic policy, the two parties are holding firm. Democrats and Republicans have also lined up neatly in the Whitewater hearings. More interesting, they have done so in the current hearing on the Waco disaster--with Democrats unashamedly planting themselves in the law-and-order camp and Republicans carrying the flag for civil liberties.

Sometimes there are deviations on specific issues--for example, the recent Senate vote to lift the U.S. arms embargo on Bosnia. On other occasions, there is what could be called softness around the edges: GOP Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York still hasn't called Hillary Rodham Clinton to testify before the Whitewater committee about her actions after Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s death.

Some proponents of good government say there are nowhere near enough deviations from the party line. Congress- men, in this view, should be more willing to abandon their parties and support the right principles and people.

As a general matter, it is not clear that such loftiness would bring about better government: Only if a party is cohesive, binding its members to its ideas, can voters know what they are getting when they cast their ballots. We need a degree of blind partisanship among congressmen so that political parties can be held accountable, just as we need a certain amount of "only following orders" mentality in the armed services if we are to maintain civilian control of the military.

Yet, in some areas, doing business on the basis of party loyalty and party accountability does not work and will probably never work. Most noteworthy, in recent years, the Congress, the Senate, in particular, has been uncomfortable with this notion of accountability when it comes to ethics.

Throughout most of its history, the Senate dealt with the ethics of its members by paying as little attention to them as possible. The Senate, the argument went, was a representative body and should not set its own standards for membership. The ethics of individual senators were the business of their constituents.

This idea began to lose its force in the 1960s, as public standards changed and the Senate's media exposure grew. In the wake of the Bobby Baker scandal, it was clear that the Senate, for the sake of its reputation and of its members' electoral safety, would have to police its members' activities in a more organized way.

So the Senate set up a bipartisan ethics committee. There was to be equal membership from each party--meaning each party could exercise a veto over committee actions. Thus, when the committee did act, it was hoped, its decisions would not be seen as the work of one party or the other. And only after committee action would the full Senate have to vote on an ethics issue.

In short, the Senate did what it could to divest itself of primary power in this area and shield itself from the corresponding accountability.

Why all the skittishness and the willingness of the Senate majority to give up dispositive power? It is not so mysterious. Ethics questions, more than any other political issue, entail judgments of individual moral worth. With these issues, there is no way to make the usual claim in politics--that it's "nothing personal."

Because ethics matters are intrinsically personal, they are capable of inflicting wounds that never heal, hurts deeper than even the sort of personal treachery that often accompanies the pursuit of ordinary political and partisan advantage. Such personal grudges can make it impossible for people ever to work with one another constructively again.

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