BACK WHEN POLITICAL reforming was in style, a lot of officials talked loftily about the need for tough, independent enforcement of the campaign laws. To see how times hve changed, consider the way the Senate Rules Committee and the administration have resolved the long squabble over two nominations to the Federal Election Commission. The Senate Panel has just approved a former House Administration Committee counsel, John W. McGarry, whose major qualification for the jobs is the backing of House Majority Leader Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.). In exchange for allowing the McGarry nomination to be advanced, the Panel's Republicans have cemented an understanding that they will have a large role in filling the other vacancy.
Granted, it is impossible to keep politics out of nominations to an agency whose function is regulation of politics. And a good deal can be said for maintaining a balance on the six-member commission, instead of stacking it with friends of any one party or interest group. Still, that does not preclude the selection of commissioners who have a modicum of independence from party organizations, presidents or influential congressmen. The trick is that the independence should be balanced. It is hardly evenhanded to select a high-minded, unbossed Republican (or Democrat) and pair him with a party hack.
President Carter has resolved those problems unsatisfactorily in both of his passes at filling the FEC vacancies. Last year he angered the Republicans, understandably, by naming Mr. McGarry, the speaker's choice - and proposing a Republican, Sam Zagoria, whom the leadership had not backed. This summer, to appease the GOP, Mr. Carter withdrew Mr. Zagoria's name - but let the McGarry nomination stand, instead of proposing an entirely different pair.
The precedent is not encouraging. Despite the committee's inquiries, several questions about Mr. McGarry' finanical practices, including some sizable tax deductions, have not been entirely resolved. Moveover, Mr. McGarry himself acknowledged at one hearing that the generalized information he had provided would be "totally inadequate" if presented to the FEC by a candidate. Still, his path now seems to be greased - unless the full Senate becomes more sensitive to the problems of cronyism than the Rules Committee is. The real question now is whether the Republicans, in submitting names to Mr. Carter, will show more regard for the need for firm enforcement of the laws and an arms-length relationship between candidates and those who regulate them.