Congress gets into the Whitewater act this week, but just barely. The House and Senate Banking committees begin public hearings into what has been called "the Washington phase" of the controversial story. That is, did high-level White House or Treasury or Resolution Trust Corporation officials improperly try to influence RTC field investigators looking into Whitewater-related matters involving the Clintons and a failed savings and loan? Also, was White House Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s death a homicide or a suicide?
Originally Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill agreed that another subject would be investigated at this time: The handling of Mr. Foster's papers in his White House office by White House staff after his death. But Robert B. Fiske Jr., the special prosecutor in the Whitewater affair, has asked the committees to delay on that a little longer; his own investigation is taking more time than he anticipated.
Congress has an important "hound dog" function. It is supposed to look for and expose misconduct in the executive branch, even -- we would say especially -- conduct that does not rise to the level of criminality. Nothing in the Washington phase seems to be criminal. Mr. Fiske's conclusion in the RTC matter was that there was "insufficient evidence" to show that any officials "acted with the intent to corruptly influence" RTC investigations. The Banking committees have a responsibility to flesh that out, showing the public whatever evidence there is of unethical or improper behavior.
As to whether Mr. Foster killed himself or not, the Fiske probe concluded that he did, and that there was no foul play. Why the Banking committees are looking into this, we don't know. There have been some lurid rumors about the death even since the Fiske report, but if there is enough substance for them to be probed and publicized, surely some committee with more expertise and interest in law enforcement and crimes of violence is a better choice to do that.
The Banking committees are the proper ones to look into what happened in Mr. Foster's office after his death. There have long been suspicions that some White House aides may have been involved in obstruction of justice by examining and removing some of Mr. Foster's papers which had some relevance to Whitewater. The fact that Mr. Fiske's investigation is running a month or two longer than he expected makes it even easier to be suspicious of the original official denials that anything improper occurred.
Maybe nothing did. Hearings now or later can resolve that. These things are often partisan, but that cuts both ways. For every Republican insinuation, there is going to be a Democratic exoneration. The public is smart enough to sort it out.