IT DID NOT TAKE long for the Senate Government Affairs Committee to wind up tis investigation into the business affairs to Budget Director Bert Lance. The committee readily accepted his explanations and all its members. Republican as well as Democratic, seemed to concur with his view that he has done nothing improper. The senators may well be right. But we think they would have been a little wiser to wait for a few more facts to come in.
Of the three major matters in which Mr. Lance's activities have been questioned, only one seems to us to be worth pursuing: the relationship, if any, between the $3.4 million personal laoan he got from the First National Bank of Chicago and the deposits made in that bank by his National Bank of Georgia. The loan, most likely, is the "straightforward, good business loan" that Mr. Lance says it is. If it isn't, of course, he and both banks are in serious trouble. In either case, the situation is being investigated by the Comptroller of the Currency. We think that judgment should be reserved - by all concerned - until the results of that investigation are made public.
Part of the furor over this transaction - the part that we suspect Mr. Lance finds most difficult ot understand - arises from the difference between the way business is done in the clubby world of big-time finance and in the world of everyday America. Most Americans not only never borrow $3.4 million but, moreover, cannot conceive of getting the kind of favorable treatment Mr. Lance got without doing something for the bank in return. In the world in which Mr. Lance operated, large sums of money move about in arrangements quite different from those that have to be made by other folks, and corners are not always turned as squarely as they might be. Transactions like the Chicago loan and deposit can look suspect even if they may turn out to be legitimate.
The other two matters about which Mr. Lance has been questioned are different. He shouldn't have arranged that appointment for two of his creditors with the Secretary of the Treasury; surely Mr. Blumenthal has better things to do with his time, and Mr. Lance was either naive or just plain dumb to impose upon him. But making appointments for friends is a favorite sport in this town and is not improper - although it is frequently unseemly - unless it is calculated to influence a decision. This one, apparently, was not. As for the deposit of $18 million of Teamster pension funds in Mr. Lance's bank early in 1976, the key fact is that Mr. Lance and his colleagues were bankers, not public officials. Regardless of the motivation for the deposit, they could hardly turn it down. Improprieties could have arisen out of this transaction if Mr. Lance had tried to influence government policy toward the Teamsters after Mr. Carter was elected. So far as we know, no one has suggested he has done that.
The stories of the last week, however, do bring up a question that has been neglected in the long debate over conflicts of interest. That is the matter of debts, as distinct from assets. It seems obvious that a person with debts like those of Mr. Lance could be subjected to substantial pressure for favors from creditors, pressure of a kind entirely different from that growing out of a desire to protect or increase that value of assets. Yet, we have never heard it suggested that incoming government officials must divest themselves of debts - may be that's because debts are harder to get rid of than assets. In both cases, full disclosure - and the occasional disqualification from certain decisions that must follow from disclosure - is likely to be as effective protection against conflicts of interest as devestiture. In Mr. Lance's situation, that disclosure has occurred. But recent events suggest that little thought was given last winter, either on Capitol Hill or in his own mind, to the conflicts of interest (or the appearance of them) that could arise out of Mr. Lance's considerable indebtedness.