The powerful Senate Ethics Committee - composed of three Democrats and three Republicans - prides itself on not letting politics interfere with its important work.

But that reputation has been badly tarnished by the committee's inexcusable foot-dragging in the case of the savings and loan scandal involving the so-called Keating Five.The Keating Five are five senators - one Republican and four Democrats - accused of breaking Senate rules by pressuring federal regulators to ease up on a renegade California thrift while its owner, Charles Keating Jr., was showering them with $1.3 million in political donations.

Defying recommendations by its own special counsel that the case against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio be dropped from the investigation, the Ethics Committee decided to hold an extraordinary public hearing for all five of the accused lawmakers. But not until Nov. 15, nine days after Election Day. Meanwhile, six weeks after its completion, the 354-page report of the special counsel remains hidden from public view.

None of the five senators is up for re-election this year. But the committee's decision leaves McCain and Glenn suffering more wounds than they evidently deserve to. The decision wounds the committee itself by making it look as if the panel is trying to make sure that both parties - not just the Democrats - are left on the hook at least through the Nov. 6 congressional elections. And it wounds the public by depriving them of facts needed to replace leaks, rumors and innuendoes.

If the Senate Ethics Committee proceeds with its present schedule, it will have taken the panel a year to complete its work and take concrete action on the Keating Five.

This shabby performance leaves the public with a bad taste and a disturbing question: Who polices the ethics of the Senate Ethics Committee when these so-called watchdogs fall down on the job?