The federal election campaign act both needs and rates a few kind words. Thanks to that law, which provides qualifying presidential candidates with limited public funds in exchange for the candidates' pledge to accept campaign spending limits, money did not determine either who ran or who was elected president in 1976 and 1980.

The 1968 presidential race between the late Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon was most certainly decided by money. There are among us a number of souls who would welcome a 1984 return to 1968-style presidential campaigns, where money talked with authority and candidates listened with respect. And, absent some effective political leadership in Congress to strengthen the present law, the 1980 presidential campaign may well turn out to be our last run under any real spending limits.

What makes that possibility very real is the Supreme Court's 4-to-4 non-decision this week on whether Congress acted constitutionally when it placed a $1,000 limit on expenditures by "independent political committees" in presidential campaigns. The court's failure to resolve the question leaves intact a lower court ruling allowing such expenditures without limit.

President Reagan, in behalf of whose 1980 fall campaign some $9 million in "independent expenditures" were collected and spent, has never swerved in his own outspoken opposition to the election campaign act and, particularly, its public funding provision. In fact, so deep is Reagan's dislike of the campaign law that he refused to earmark a single dollar of his federal tax payment for the presidential campaign fund, as provided for on all individual tax forms. However, Reagan was able to overcome his personal distaste for the law in both 1976 and 1980 to allow his campaigns to accept U.S. Treasury checks totaling $41,212,230.12.

In July 1980, before Reagan received the public sector check for $29,440,000 for the general election, he and his running mate signed a form stating: "No contributions have been accepted by us or by our authorized committees." And nobody has charged that any other checks were, in fact, deposited in the Reagan-Bush account.

Still, committees headed by such Reagan loyalists as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) were spending millions to attack Jimmy Carter and to raise issues the Republican presidential campaign would not have risked raising itself. For example, one television commercial produced and broadcast by the Helms committee consisted totally of an attack upon third-party candidate John Anderson. The spot emphasized Anderson's identical stand on a number of social issues with that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The commercial's message was: we stopped Kennedy, we can stop Anderson. Its purpose, however, was to persuade Kennedy voters and supporters that they had much more in common with Anderson than with Jimmy Carter. That's not the kind of message, if you're running the Reagan campaign with limited funds, that you'd probably choose to spend those limited funds on. But if somebody else wants to do it, then what you do is--wink. That's what Reagan and George Bush did during the fall election of 1980.

Those committees can now do the below-the-belt punches and the smear stuff while the candidates they're doing it for feign innocence. That's the real sleazy wink that's been missing from American presidential politics since 1972.

Under the current law, citizens have for the first time been able to learn not only from whom candidates for president (and all federal offices) receive their campaign funds, but just as important, what candidates spend those funds on. The campaign law has substantiallyy diminshed the incidence of the unattributed attack in our political campaigns. The law has encouraged a new level of accountability in our political life.The question is whether Congress and the administration are going to permit the undoing of that real reform, that significant improvement, and the full return of the sleazy wink to our political life through "independent expenditures."