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Election law reform: still shaking the bugs out of FEC's operation

Watergate-style campaign abuses were noticeable by their absence in the last election, which appears to have run its course nearly scandal-free. The full disclosure laws of the decade-old Federal Election Campaign Act appear to be a success.

A watch has been set against laundered campaign funds, illegal corporate contributions, "bought" ambassadorships, and secret monies that aroused Congress to pass a host of amendments in 1974 and 1976 to the '71 act.

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The positive change in public expectations on undue political influence was seen in recent weeks when the Reagan White House felt compelled to shut down a private fund for promoting the Reagan economic package, and to publish the list of donors to the White House redecoration fund, which it was not required to do by law.

But despite these successes, the federal campaign act is due for another round of reform.

Public interest lobby Common Cause charges in a new report that Congress from the start designed a Federal Election Commission (FEC) with insufficient strength and independence to regulate campaign finances. Common Cause proposes a four-year term for the FEC chairman, and a more powerful staff director. Currently, FEC commissioners rotate in the chairmanship for one-year terms.

The 10-year-old act will get a full-scale public airing April 2-3 at a Washington conference sponsored by the Citizens Research Foundation, which closely monitors the Act. And this June, when the commission sends a report to Congress, the FEC itself will propose that Congress take another look at a number of provisions in the law.

Among the major complaints:

* The law still works against political newcomers and independents. John B. Anderson's presidential campaign, for example, had to spend $1.2 million in legal fees just to get on state ballots, apart from petition passing and filing costs.

* The $1,000 individual campaign limit may be too low, encouraging a diversion of funds to independent campaign committees. Some experts propose the presidential general campaign be funded by a combination of public and private money --say 50-50 -- instead of mainly public funding as now is the case.

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The FEC will suggest Congress consider dropping the state-by-state presidential campaign allocation system, letting campaigns focus their resources wherever they wish.

On Common Cause's tentative list of reforms are tax credits for political giving, and low-cost media time for campaigners.

Most experts agree that, lacking some outside prodding from events such as Watergate, Congress does not appear eager to take on further election reforms this session. Congress has wanted to keep the FEC in tow all along, and would resist giving it more power or financial independence.

"Congress wants close budget authority over the FEC," says F. Christopher Arterton, a Yale University political scientist who headed a recent Harvard University campaign study group. Funds from the tax checkoff for presidential campaigns are building fast enough to help pay for a beefed-up FEC, Professor Arterton points out.

The Reagan budget calls for holding FEC funding at about $9.7 million, and for reducing its staff from 250 authorized for this year to 227 in 1982.

Critics complain the FEC already is not geared up enough to handle the legal questions it must decide on the run during a campaign, or the deluge of financial data it must process on every presidential and congressional candidate's campaign.

On the financial side, it took $250 million to elect the President in 1980 -- for primaries, conventions, and the general election, says Herbert Alexander, director of the Citizens' Research Foundation. and it took $250 million to elect the Congress.

Overseeing the spending of a half-billion dollars -- certain to rise again by more than the rate of inflation in 1984 --puts a great strain on the commission's resources. Congress might have to choose between simplifying the law or increasing FEC resources for future elections, says Michael Malbin, campaign finance law expert.

"The candidates most hurt are those new to politics," Mr. Malbin says. Yale's Arterton proposes that the $1,000 limit on individual contributions should be increased in stages to equal the $5,000 limit on political action committees (PACs).

"Individual contribution limits are too low," Arterton says. "The flow of money through PACs and independent committee expenditures are ways politicians are seeking to get around limits of the act."

PACs -- which represent business, labor, and other special-interest groups --raised at least $137 million for the 1980 elections, compared with $80 million for 1978, the FEC reported.

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