FAITHFUL READERS of this page may recall a certain federal agency whose zeal to instruct the young on the moral content of television commercials won it the unaffectionate nickname National Nanny. According to many politically involved Americans, among them campaign counsels for every major 1980 Republican and Democratic presidential candidate, there exists a related agency in the regulatory pantheon: the National Nit-Picker, a.k.a. the Federal Election Commission.
Back in April, lawyers representing the different campaign committees banded together to write the FEC an extraordinary letter of complaint describing the difficulties they had encountered in trying to comply with various reporting provisions for campaign expenses, allegedly because of the commission's "hyper-technical standards," "ex post facto interpretation of regulations," "lack of standardized accounting procedures," and "extraordinary, almost arbitrary, authority given [FEC auditors] . . . to threaten the campaign process." Strong words, which the commission tried to counter in May with a tough rebuttal that rejected the charges, blamed flaws in existing election law for the cumbersome financial reporting requirements and reiterated its intention to insure "proper accounting" for all funds used in the present publicly funded system of presidential campaigning.
The battle lines seemed drawn for a major -- and salutary -- public fight over the future of the entire post-Watergate system of campaign financing and electoral reform. Demands that the commission be scuttled completely, as well as a number of proposals for legislative improvement of FEC procedures (some of them from the commission itself), would almost certainly be put forth. But that argument could be sidetracked -- or postponed indefinitely -- if a few Senate Republican opponents of the FEC succeed in any of several legislative maneuvers now in progress to amend away much of the commission's enforcement authority or to cut its fiscal '82 budget authorization (already approved in the House) by 50 percent.
These delaying tactics, which would prevent the FEC from mobilizing its full resources to monitor the 1982 congressional races, also threaten to distract congressional attention from the broader scrutiny of the commission and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (and its subsequent amendments), which should begin without further delay. It is fair to ask, as opponents have, whether the act and the FEC have created more problems for honest political campaign organizations than for the minority of tricksters in the field. At the same time, supporters of campaign finance reform should be obliged to come forth with practical remedies to reduce the time, tedium and money now required to comply with labyrinthine reports and audits that the law demands.
Since 1975, the FEC has spent over $47 million to patrol the national political process. Lately the commission has begun a quiet but energetic public defense of its record that, despite the many detractors among professional politicians, can count on some strong allies. A recent and sympathetic study by Common Cause, for example, noted many problems but proposed a major overhaul and strengthening of the FEC. Any congressional assault on the agency will encounter resistance from those who fear its excesses less than a revival of pre-Watergate campaign practices.
In fact, a hard congressional look at both the 1971 statute and the commission does seem in order. That is why the current attempts to short-circuit the process through legislative legerdemain -- amendments hampering FEC's supervisory role of brutalizing its budget -- makes no sense at all