Larry Craig

Senate ethics committee to judge Idaho's Craig on vague standard

WASHINGTON — A guilty plea to a misdemeanor? The Senate's code of conduct is silent.

Handing an arresting officer your Senate business card? Nothing there.

Asked to investigate Sen. Larry Craig's conduct in an airport men's room and the aftermath, the Senate's ethics committee must judge him on an intentionally vague standard. Did he exhibit "improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate?"

Craig was arrested June 11 in a Minneapolis airport bathroom after an undercover officer observed conduct that the officer said was "often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct."

A police report said Craig gave the arresting officer his Senate business card and asked, "What do you think about that?"

After the story of the arrest broke this week, Craig said he "overreacted and made a poor decision" to plead guilty — without an attorney — in hopes of making the incident go away quickly. He said he was not involved in inappropriate conduct and is not gay.

Senate Republican leaders, wary of fending off corruption allegations for the second straight election, immediately asked the Senate ethics committee to investigate.

One senator, whose conduct in a U.S. attorney firing is under ethics committee scrutiny, warned against a "rush to judgment" but backed his leaders.

"The action being taken by the Senate Republican leadership is a good first step toward getting the facts," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

In the mid-1960s, when the Senate approved the current language on improper conduct, the drafters "did not attempt to delineate all the types of conduct" that would be improper, the code explains.

The three Democrats and three Republicans on the current ethics committee will have to figure that out.

Craig could face a censure resolution or even expulsion, a decision for the full Senate.

The catchall Senate standard of conduct "is important and it's real," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group that tracks congressional conduct. "It has been used in a number of cases to find a member engaged in improper conduct."

For example, in 1954, the Senate censured Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin for behavior "contrary to senatorial traditions," after he refused to cooperate with committees investigating his anti-communist witch hunts.

In 1991, in the Keating Five case involving interference with financial regulators, the committee concluded that Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., engaged in improper conduct by linking fundraising and official activities.

In 1995, the committee found Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., brought discredit upon the Senate by repeatedly committing sexual misconduct through 18 unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances.

"The language is written in ways that cover both institutional misconduct and personal misconduct," said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"For this particular case, it makes a lot of sense. Senators should have leeway on whether this rises to the level that someone should not be in the Senate."