THE HOUSE ethics committee voted Thursday to begin a preliminary inquiry into the case of Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.). Well and good. Mr. Daniel accepted and did not disclose 23 free airplane trips back and forth to his district from Beech Aircraft Corp., although House rules forbid accepting a total of $100 or more a year in gifts from corporations with legislation before Congress and require disclosure of any gifts worth more than $250. During the same period, Mr. Daniel urged Congress to buy Beech's C12 for the Pentagon. Mr. Daniel has apologized on the floor of the House, has sent the company a check to pay for the rides, and has amended his disclosure forms. Still, the ethics committee should investigate and report, to clarify the rule and to help House mmbers decide whether any further discipline is warranted.

We hope the committee's failure to announce at the same time any formal action in the case of Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.) does not represent anything more than a bit of delay. For facts alleged by Brooks Jackson and Tim Carrington in The Wall Street Journal raise a more serious question than anyone has alleged in Mr. Daniel's case. The question is whether Mr. St Germain, chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, has used his high position to enrich himself improperly.

These questions go to the heart of the integrity of the House and of the Democratic majority that elected Mr. St Germain to his chairmanship. The Banking Committee has jurisdiction over institutions that are necessarily closely regulated by government. Confidence in banks and savings institutions is essential to the operation of the economy, and in recent years that confidence has been shaken by the depositor runs and allegations of abuse of trust by insiders. The substantive responsibilities of a person in Mr. St Germain's position are as great as those of any member of Congress. If he is innocent of the charges, he deserves to be publicly cleared of them; confidence in his actions is at stake, as is fundamental fairness to the man. If it is established that he has undermined his ability to fulfill those responsibilities by attempting to enrich himself improperly, it would be a grave dereliction of duty for Congress not to take stern disciplinary action.

It is the ethics committee's responsibility to investigate the charges. Members of Congress are understandably reluctant to accuse their colleagues of misconduct. But surely they understand that misconduct by a member in a position of high trust, with pivotal responsibilities in a most sensitive regulatory area, must be either cleared or rebuked if the reputation of Congress generally, and of the majority party in the House in particular, are not to suffer harm.