SPEAKING OF preserving the record, a doozy of a scandal could be brewing on the Hill, and it has nothing to do with the briefing book for the presidential debate. We refer to the alteration of transcripts of House committee meetings in order to distort testimony and make Republican members appear less knowledgeable or effective. This is not your standard cleaning-up of the record to correct grammatical errors and improve style. Nor was it done by various speakers themselves to embellish their remarks or make themselves appear more articulate than they actually were at the time. If a member wants to change his reference to a colleague from "that old fool" to "the distinguished gentleman," that's acceptable by congressional standards. And somehow people have even been made to tolerate, though with a certain amount of despair, the addition by staff members of witty commentary to their legislator's dull remarks, followed by the descriptive "(laughter in the audience)." But the changes now causing well-deserved controversy are of a very different nature. They are unfunnily malicious, extensive--more than 100 were found in one set of hearings alone--and seriously damage the integrity of House proceedings.

Alterations have been discovered so far in two sets of committee hearings: a joint hearing by subcommittees of the Government Operations, Science and Technology and Energy and Commerce committees on the work of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a hearing by a Government Operations subcommittee on silver marketing. Among the errors found were the inclusion or removal of the word "not," the substitution of the word "minority" for "majority" and the complete omission of supporting documentation together with a congressman's request that such documents be made part of the record.

It appears that a calculated effort was made to embarrass Republican members and to reshape legislative history. This is important, as Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) points out, not only because of the personal harm such distortions do to members but because a one-sided rewriting of an important legislative document seriously distorts the intent of Congress, misleads courts and falsifies material that can be used in political campaigns.

The House has referred this matter to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for investigation, but the Republicans don't think this forum is the best one. They want public hearings right from the start, and the ethics committee operates in secret--at least during preliminary stages of an investigation. Furthermore, the committee has jurisdiction only over House members and staff. Two of the subcommittees whose transcripts were altered have changed hands since the hearings took place. One chairman has died and another was defeated for reelection; presumably their staffs are no longer House employees. These objections were overridden by the House on a partisan vote.

The ethics committee now has until the end of the year to complete an investigation and report back to the House. That seems an awfully long time. Does the House really need six months to find out who has been doctoring its records in this reckless, dirty-trick way? Why aren't the Democrats who are running the place in more of a hurry?