IT KEEPS GETTING WORSE. Each new disclosure of Bert Lance's affairs, public and private, raises new doubts about his fitness to continue to serve in office. The steady accumulation of new information now compels three judgments. First, it is obvious that if the public and Congress had known in January what they know now, Mr. Lance could never have been confirmed. Second, Mr. Lance's record does not square with President Carter's stated standards of public ethics. Third, Mr. Lance has now become an intolerable burden and distraction to a President who needs his full energies for larger purposes than defending the past record of an old friend. Mr. Lance can now perform only one useful service for the President, and that is to resign.
This conclusion represents a change, in some degree, from the view that we offered in this space yesterday when we said that Mr. Lance could best stay and defend himself in the Senate hearings. That change arises in large part from a close reading of the affidavits from Robert Bloom, the acting Comptroller of the Currency, that were introduced Tuesday in a House Banking subcommittee hearing. The Comptroller's office regulates national banks, and Mr. Bloom was in charge of it when the new administration was being formed. You can discount quite a lot of Mr. Bloom's account as merely self-serving, and still have to deal with a disquieting description of Mr. Lance's assiduous buttering of Mr. Bloom and his subordinates to keep certain information out of the confirmation hearing record. That information has to do, inevitably, with the mismanagement of the bank in Calhoun, Ga., that Mr. Lance had been running. It is possible to debate whether Mr. Lance actually committed misstatements before the Senate committee, but at a minimum he was a great deal less than candid in his answers.
As for the next hearings before that same committee, they were originally scheduled for today. But they have been put off for a week to allow Mr. Lance to prepare his defense. In the meantime, Mr. Lance has hired a lawyer, Clark Clifford, a man of vast political experience and sagacity. The hearing seems to be taking on some of the aspects of trial. That thought will dismay anyone who may still have nourished a hope that Mr. Lance might be able to bring this inquiry to a quick and satisfactory conclusion.
There isn't going to be any quick conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise, from these or other congressional proceedings. There are now three congressional committee with an active interest in Mr. Lance's career - the Senate committee that confirmed him the two banking committees. Every other day new lines of inquiry open, and the Bloom affidavits opened more than their share. It's not just the overdrafts and the questionable lending practices. It's not only the possible misuse of a bank's airplane and the violations of tax law that it might have represented. It is the letter that Mr. Bloom wrote for the confirmation hearing and certain interesting omissions from it. It is the burgeoning family of questions about who knew what when, and whether there was deliberate suppression of part of the record. As these investigations and hearings go on, they will take up more and more of the administration's political energies and resources.
For the Carter administration, it is a particularly destructive prospect. Mr. carter has now committed himself to press ahead with the Panama treaty. He will very probably win in the end, but it is going to be a difficult process and, in political terms, costly. Mr. Carter's energy bill is now halfway through Congress but the hardest part of that job, getting the enormous oil tax through the Senate, is still ahead of him. He is about to compound that task by pushing in on top of it an even more complex bill for income-tax reform. There's much uneasiness over the economy, and the continued high unemployment. There is the Carter administration's first full budget to be drawn up, a project of enormous intricacy and weight. The budget director is supposed to be one of the President's principal advisors on economic policy.
The budget director has other duties than playing the central figure in an inadvertent morality play. It is not a job designed to leave its occupant much time for conferring with his lawyer, defending his record in private business and quarreling with various committees over who said what to whom in certain telephone calls involving the affairs of two Georgia banks.
It is inevitable that Mr. Lance will have to resign. The only real question is when, and after how much delay purchased at what cost to President Carter. Having laid great emphasis on his administration's ethical standards, Mr. Carter cannot now carry on a prolonged defense of Mr. Lance without suffering great erosion of his own public standing. Mr. Carter is a stubborn man, and perhaps he does not fully see that truth. It is the duty of his friends - and first of all, his close friend Bert Lance - to tell him.