THE HOUSE of Representatives recently voted 324 to 68 to reprimand Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.) for allowing others to cast his vote, letting his former law partner use congressional office equipment and hiring an employee who did little or no work. This is the first discipline of a House member since July 1984, when Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho) was reprimanded for filing false disclosure statements, an offense for which he has just finished serving time in federal prison. Meanwhile, some Republicans are charging the Democratic majority with "an ongoing pattern of questionable ethical conduct within the House."

The charges are overbroad and overstated, but there most surely is something deeply wrong in the pattern of action -- or inaction -- of the House ethics committee, which has six Democrats and six Republicans and usually acts unanimously. Here are some examples:

The committee found that Banking Committee Chairman Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.) understated his assets by more than $1 million and wrongly accepted jet flights from a Florida savings and loan, but it recommended no penalties.

The committee reached no conclusion on charges that the wife of Rep. Bill Boner (D-Tenn.) was paid $50,000 by a defense contractor in return for favorable treatment until after Mr. Boner was elected mayor of Nashville and resigned, thus putting him beyond the House's jurisdiction -- just as the ethics committee took no actions on charges against Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) until after she left the House.

The committee found that Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.) violated the rules by accepting too many free plane rides, but recommended no penalty.

The committee recommended no penalty against Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) for keeping on her payroll one aide who lived in New York and giving a raise to another who was buying a house with her.

The reprimand of Mr. Murphy recommended by the committee and voted by the House was a sharper response, and some suggest that the committee is making a scapegoat of this not-very-influential member to deflect criticism of its recommendations against penalties for such powerful members as Chairman St Germain and caucus official Oakar.

In fact, there is more of an institutional than political problem here. Legislators are very back-scratchy and reluctant to condemn their colleagues. Individual decisions of the ethics committee may be defensible. But the overall pattern -- slow investigations, resistance to drawing self-evident negative inferences from the facts, recommendations that tend toward the side of leniency -- are suspect, clubbish forms of cover-up. The ethics committee is doing a pitiful job.