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The Electoral Watchdog

REGULATORY reform is one thing; regulatory evasion is another. There's more than a whiff of the latter in the efforts of some in Congress to weaken the Federal Election Commission.

Complaints about the FEC have been circulating for years among lawmakers, which isn't too surprising, since the agency enforces the rules about how they can raise and spend their campaign funds. This year, however, the complaining has taken the more tangible form of proposed funding cuts for the FEC, which operates on an already spartan budget of $27 million.

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With that money, the agency supports a staff charged with monitoring US Senate and House races all over the country as well as presidential contests.

Over the years, the FEC commissioners, drawn from both major parties, have brought to light numerous misuses of campaign contributions, including some candidates' tendencies to extend ''campaign expenses'' to all manner of personal goods, like clothes and cars.

The FEC is a good government tool that reassures voters that somebody's keeping an eye out for funny business.

But it's also the only regulator whose ''regulatees'' can keep an eye on its budget.

And so, even though some critics have complained about the agency's tendency to ''search out more and more activities to regulate,'' the move by GOP budget-cutters in the House to slice 10 percent off this year's funding for the FEC raises the question of mixed motives on the part of the members involved.

It's no secret that many in Congress would like a freer hand to raise and use money as they want. That's why they have fought against recent attempts at lobbying reform and further campaign-finance reform too.

The House's slicing of the FEC budget was itself sliced in negotiation with the Senate, and President Clinton's threatened veto of the rescissions bill may moot the issue for the time being.

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But efforts to hobble the country's chief electoral watchdog will probably resurface. Meanwhile, the FEC has a tough time doing its job with current staff and funds. The agency typically takes as long as four years to put before the public its full accounting of a national election. If anything, it deserves some added resources.

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