WHATS WRONG at the Federal Election Commission? Plenty. The agency has still not finished auditing the 1976 presidential campaigns. It is just beginning to gear up for 1980, although several presidential candidates are already in the field. Staff turnover is rapid-25 to 30 percent each year. All in all, in just four years the FEC seems to have attained a state of institutional stagnation that most regulatory agencies take several decades to reach.
It is true that overseeing politics isn't easy-and the complexities of the federal election laws don't make it any easier. Also, the FEC has had some problems that were not its fault. Because of constitutional challenges to the original law, the agency wasn't really able to start functioning until May 1976, when that year's campaigns were already well along. Every appointment to the six-member commission has been the subject of pulling and hauling between the White House and Congress and among the major parties and interest groups. And since every member of Congress has a keen concern about the enforcement of the campaign laws, the FEC has been subjected to more than the standard amount of oversight and second-guessing from Capitol Hill.
But all that goes only so far, and not nearly far enough, toward explaining the agency's disarray. Commissioner Thomas E. Harris, just renominated by President Carter, did not help his own cause when, at a Senate hearing Wednesday, he attributed the FEC's staff turnover partly to the agency's location in a "bad" neighborhood (1325 K St. NW). Such lame excuses only bolster the general impression that Mr. Harris and his fellow commissioners do not have a good grip on their duties.
Perhaps nobody-not President Carter, not key members of Congress, and not the commissioners they have picked-really wants the election laws to be administered briskly and efficiently. That would be a damning conclusion for the public to reach, but the evidence pointing in that direction is mounting. If the commission's current members cannot get their house in order, they should get out of the way. And if the president and Congress do not demand, or cannot get, a much higher degree of competence and efficiency at the FEC, perhaps the whole agency should be abolished and its responsibilities turned over to someone else with more auditing and enforcement experience-such as the General Accounting Office or the IRS