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No retreat on bribery

Remember the stir in 1977 when the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed by Congress? Allegations of overseas bribery involving US corporations - including many of the best-known firms in the business landscape - had become commonplace. As a result, Congress moved to ensure that firms would no longer be able to make direct or indirect payments to foreign government officials to help win contracts. Since then there have been only a few instances of alleged bribery abroad involving US firms.

It would thus seem to be in the best interest of Congress, the public and, most important, the US business community that there be no major modification of the antibribery law. Yet such a watering-down will occur if the Senate approves a number of changes in the law now sought by the Senate Banking Committee. Among the proposals:

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* Certain payments now deemed questionable - such as travel and lodging expenses ''associated with the selling or purchasing of goods or services or with the demonstration or explanation of products'' - would be allowed to be made to foreign officials and political leaders.

* Criminal penalties applied to officials of publicly held companies that do not maintain adequate accounting controls over expenditures made abroad would be curbed. Strict accounting controls were devised to pinpoint - and avoid - hidden slush funds used for overseas payoffs.

* Jurisdiction over the bribery law would be given solely to the US Justice Department rather than being shared by Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The power-sharing arrangement now in place was instituted in part out of a legislative desire to avoid any possible ''cover-up'' of such wrongdoing.

Similar changes were approved by the Senate in 1981 but eventually fell by the way after the more liberal House failed to take any action.

Important elements of the US business community have been vigorous in seeking such changes on the grounds that the bribery act is unnecessary - because most firms do not engage in such practices to begin with and because the accounting provisions of the act are too costly.

Both reasons have merit. The bribery incidents did involve only a few firms. And the law does require additional bookkeeping work. However, there is a strong case to be made that the chief beneficiaries of the act are all US firms that sell and trade abroad. Opinion polls throughout the 1970s indicated that a substantial segment of the public felt that corporate bribery reflected adversely on business in general.

Congress would not be remiss in considering modest changes to reduce unnecessary paperwork requirements. At the same time the bribery legislation has done what it was intended to do - prevent bribery. So there is no compelling justification for substantially altering the act at this time.

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