The Federal Election Commission came under bipartisan attack from the Senate Rules Committee yesterday for its still-unfinished audits of the 1976 presidential campaign and its apparent disarray in the face of next year's elections.
One of the senators, Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), wondered aloud whether any of the commission's current members should be reappointed in light of the agency's poor performance.
Although 30 months have passed since the 1976 elections, the FEC has yet to complete its audits of four presidential campaigns that year, including Jimmy Carter's general election effort. The president's campaign committee received $21.8 million in federal funds.
At one point during yesterday's hearing, Rules Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) asked Commissioner Thomas E. Harris whether the FEC would be willing to discuss details of the audits in closed session.
Harris was doubtful, insisting that such matters must be treated confidentially under the law setting up the FEC. The audits, he said, involve "potential violations" of federal election laws.
"Were the commission to reveal details of pending audits, and they involved campaigns of people seeking reelection, this would go contrary" to the law, Harris asserted.
In fact, the amount of secrecy required is currently undergoing debate within the FEC, under pressure from Capitol Hill and from news organizations seeking details under the Freedom of Information Act. The statute setting up the FEC specifically prescribes confidentiality for "complaince proceedings," but not for audits. The law makes no distinction between "people seeking reelection" and other candidates.
Yesterday's hearing wa called to consider Senate Confirmation of Harris' reappointment to a four-year term and of the appointment of a new Republican member, Frank P. Reiche of New Jersey. But it was devoted primarily to growing criticisms of the FEC's work. The washington Post republic accountant on its auditing staff, ported April 30 that the commission, which does not have a single certified appears almost as unprepared for the 1980 campaign as it was in 1976 when it was just getting organized.
"We're dealing with public funds," Hatfield told Harris. "It seems to me that if the commission record is so unsatisfactory-as it is-you should be a little more concerned than you appear to be . . .
"Given the record of the commission," Hatfield said, "do you think any of the commissioners deserve to be reappointed?" Harris responded that he thought the FEC performed as well as any other federal agency.
Pell told Harris that while commission members felt they were "doing their best, the trouble is that the best is not proving good enough."
"There has been undue delay in carrying out your mission," Pell said. ". .
If you go at the same speed [after the 1980 elections] it will be 1983 before they [the 1980 audits] are completed."
Some of the committee's criticism stemmed from The Post article, which dealt with the audit delays and other problems of the commission, including a 25 to 30 percent annual turnover in staff, and staff morale problems.
Harris said he disputed much of the article. He blamed the audit delays, in part, on the lack of uniformity in record-keeping among the presidential candidates.
Under questioning from Hatfield, however, Harris conceded that while the commission had issued recommendations for uniform record-keeping, it had taken no steps to require such uniformity.
Harris attributed the high staff turnover to the youthfulness of the FEC offices, at 1325 K Street NW. "I don't know of any government building in so bad a neighborhood," Harris said. "It's convenient to pornography but I don't think the normal person wants to work out his life at 1325 K Street." Besides, he said, the air conditioning was "not always so good" at the building.
In a related development, the union representing the FEC employes has filed a formal complaint charging the agency with violating merit system regulations by inquiring as to whether job applicants come with "congressional referrals." CAPTION: Picture, SEN. CLAIBORNE PELL . . . asks about closed session