Some House Republicans have spent a frustrating summer trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to arouse interest in an affair they say is far more scandalous than pilfered campaign debate briefing papers or sexual relations between House members and teen-age pages.
These Republicans have tried to interest the media, public, Justice Department and fellow congressmen in the controversy, and one measure of their failure is that it has yet to acquire a name, let alone a place in the popular imagination.
The matter is not trivial. Democratic staff members, the Republicans charge, maliciously have altered remarks they made at Environmental Protection Agency oversight hearings last July, and the revisions make Republican members look foolish or ill-informed. There appear to be 14 instances of unauthorized tampering.
"What is at issue here is the integrity of the House," Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) told his colleagues June 29. "This House lives and breathes through its records."
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) has vowed to accept no less than dismissal of the party responsible.
The House voted unanimously June 30 to order the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the ethics committee, to investigate those and any similar textual alterations and report back no later than Dec. 31. Ralph Lotkin, a General Accounting Office lawyer, has been assigned to direct the investigation.
The ethics committee routinely operates behind a veil of silence, and this investigation is no exception. Committee members and aides, as well as Lotkin, decline to answer even technical questions about the pace, extent and method of the investigation.
The seven Republicans who initially complained that their remarks were changed all have received letters from the committee asking specifically what was changed and for the names of all staff workers who had the members' permission to make changes. The committee also has begun to interview the staffs on the subcommittees involved.
The seven also have requested the Justice Department to investigate, since altering official government documents is a crime. A Justice Department spokesman said the matter was under consideration.
"What concerns me," said Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), one who says his remarks were tampered with, "is how broad or narrow this investigation is. I felt that this one incident was not the only problem, that there has been a systematic changing of House documents over a period of time."
Walker, whose office first discovered the changes, says that the majority staff in the House "has developed a kind of arrogance which has permitted people to change documents at will without any real fear that this was going to be caught, or that it was even a big deal."
Since making public the initial changes, Republicans have produced what they say are four more examples of similar tampering--"the point being that here we've had a matter that has been around maybe three, four, five weeks at this point, and we have at least half a dozen committees where the problem of the acccuracy of documents is a relevant issue," said Walker.
"If there were a very broad-based kind of study, I have every reason to think that it would be a very broad problem."
The second set of alterations, involving apparent changes in the testimony of a witness before a Government Operations subcommittee, is also under investigation by the ethics committee.
But the most recent changes the Republicans say they have discovered in what they see as a widening controversy differ significantly from the original alterations, which were unauthorized changes in Republican members' comments.
The fresh instances involve changes authorized by Democrats in their own comments or in House documents. In each case, Democrats involved admit the changes and defend them as permissible.
One incident involved the expansion of an amendment to an education appropriations bill; Democrats call it a technical change, Republicans a substantive one. A second instance involves the deletion of part of a pamphlet entered as an exhibit in a hearing. Democrats say the deletion was authorized by the committee and protects the names of innocent people; Republicans call it a cover-up.
The most recent example put forth by Republicans involves the deletion from the record of confidential material that was revealed inadvertently at a hearing last November. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) revealed the contents of an internal Justice Department report without realizing that the information had been obtained by his staff only on the condition that it not be revealed. Told of the error, Edwards moved to limit the damage done by removing some of his remarks from the record.
He says "there is no resemblance to nor analogy to" the other cases and at least one of the Republicans whose remarks originally were altered, Rep. Claudine Schneider (R.I.), agrees.
"I can certainly understand how Congressman Edwards could make that error," she said. "If we are asked to keep something confidential, I think in that case it's all right to alter the transcript."
Traditionally, House members are permitted to "revise and extend" remarks made on the floor, and to polish the rhetoric and smooth the grammar of statements made in committee. Changing the substance of remarks is not permitted, but what constitutes a substantive change is frequently a matter of opinion.
A number of the affected Republicans have called for the House to move to verbatim transcripts, forbidding all polishing, and Rep. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said this week he is planning to file a lawsuit against the Government Printing Office seeking to require verbatim transcripts.
At the least, suggests Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), "This all points up the fact that the House rules have got to be clarified, both in committee as well as in the congressional record" in terms of what is permissible and what is not.
In the end, each side accuses the other of simple politics. "Our friends in the Republican Party," Edwards said, "are trying to divert attention from the stolen Carter briefing papers."
But Rep. William Carney (R-N.Y.), another congressman who says his remarks were altered, maintains that briefing papers are trivial compared to the alterations.