The House yesterday voted unanimously for an investigation into an alteration of official committee transcripts after it shrugged off a flurry of Republican complaints about the secrecy that will surround the inquiry.
The investigation will be conducted by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which was given a Dec. 30 deadline.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) tried to offer an amendment that would have required that ethics committee hearings in the probe be open, at least in their initial moments, but he was defeated, 250 to 151.
The vote ordering the investigation was 409 to 0.
Republican members of Congress discovered recently that the printed transcripts of 1982 hearings on the performance of the Environmental Protection Agency and 1980 hearings on speculation in the silver market had been altered, often with the effect of making GOP members sound ludicrous.
Yesterday's House action came amid Republican complaints about a "double standard" in the national press whereby the controversy over the 1980 Ronald Reagan campaign's mysterious acquisition of President Carter's briefing papers makes the front pages day after day and the dispute over the doctored House transcripts is brushed aside.
Rep. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) waved a copy of yesterday's Washington Post to make the point, calling press coverage of the two matters "clearly the ultimate in hypocrisy." He pointed to a front-page story on the Carter briefing papers and an editorial on the same subject, then contrasted those with a short article on page A5 concerning the tampered transcripts.
"In the annals of yellow journalism, this paper gets a good solid lemon," Gregg protested. "This paper belongs in the trash."
House Democrats had insisted that the rules of the ethics committee, requiring secrecy in the investigative stages of a misconduct inquiry, were needed to prevent the smearing of innocent people and the airing of allegations that might be proven as having been groundless.
Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) told reporters yesterday that the committee would attempt to identify the staff worker or workers presumed to have altered the records and "reprimand him to the severest."
The House Republican leadership, represented in yesterday's debate by Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), endorsed the ethics committee inquiry because it was the only avenue open to it in the Democratic-controlled House.
"I think it's important that this matter go forward," Lott, who is House GOP whip, told his colleagues. He said he believed criminal laws had been violated.
A number of GOP members, including Gregg and others whose remarks were twisted in the hearing records, remained dissatisfied and evidently suspicious of the ethics committee as a burial ground for unseemly internal affairs, such as the "phantom" voting shenanigans of 1979.
In that case, as Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) recalled this week, "There were no public hearings because we never proceeded to the point where there was any alleged statement of violations."
In that case, the ethics committee also decided against spending the money needed to determine whether ghost voting was widespread on the House floor, where members use individual cards in electronic roll calls. The panel said the evidence of wrongdoing wasn't "substantial" enough.
"By referring this matter to the ethics committee, it goes into a cocoon," Rep. John Patrick Hiler (R-Ind.) protested yesterday. Gregg assailed it as "a fast-track attempt to get this matter out of the public eye."