Faces are red at the Commerce Department, starting with Secretary Malcolm Baldrige's, over a heavy-handed attempt to bolster President Reagan's version of the Export Administration Act in a government-financed publication.

The May 30 issue of Business America, a slick bimonthly magazine published by the International Trade Administration, contained an article that not only touted the administration's approach to the legislation but called competing House and Senate bills "radical departures" that would weaken the president's hand and help the Soviet bloc.

The article, written by ITA policy analyst Paige Sullivan, urges anyone "who wishes to see the United States retain an effective, but more efficient export control system" to write his congressman in support of the Reagan bill.

Among those who took the strongest possible editorial exception to the article was Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.), chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee and author of one of the competing bills.

Bonker wrote first to the General Accounting Office, requesting a complete investigation. Then he wrote to Baldrige, complaining that not only did the article show "a serious lack of editorial professionalism," it also quite possibly violated federal laws that prohibit lobbying with public funds.

Baldrige quickly agreed, promised Bonker a retraction and said he would refer the matter to the Justice Department.

Justice, however, declined to prosecute the case. The matter is now in the throes of an "administrative review" at Commerce, not to mention a GAO investigation and a separate inquiry by Commerce's inspector general.

A Commerce spokesman said employes responsible for Business America "apparently were not aware" of the anti-lobbying statute.

Other Commerce sources say the matter was instrumental in the pending departure of Bonnie B. Whyte, ITA's head of public affairs. But spokesmen in Whyte's office say she had made plans to leave before the article was printed. "I'm certain that her leaving was unrelated to that episode," said one.

JUGGLING THE BOOKS . . . When budget cuts sliced funding last year for an office in the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colo., the office found a way to make it up: It raised the price of its data.

When the same office found out it was losing money by supplying free data to some customers, it recouped by socking its paying customers with a price increase.

Standard practice, perhaps, in the old bottom-line world of free enterprise, but when the GAO found those book-balancing efforts going on in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's data centers, it took a dim view indeed.

The law says that the government can only recover, in the way of user fees and other charges, what it costs to supply the service or information. And, according to Commerce's own directives, the charges have to be uniform for all customers.

But the GAO found that NOAA's three data centers--the geophysical center in Boulder, the National Oceanographic Data Center in Washington and the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.--"have created a system of underpayments and overpayments which unfairly discriminates among users."

The practices, it said, include raising prices to make up budget cuts, "adjusting actual cost figures to reflect prices that agency officials wish to charge," and pumping up subscription rates to some publications to absorb the costs of hundreds of free subscriptions.

Freebies are supposed to be limited to occasional courtesy copies or to "exchange" agreements with foreign customers. But the GAO found the policy wasn't exactly being followed to the letter.

More than 40 percent of the customers for one publication were paying nothing, it found, and in one case the decision of who gets a free subscription was left in the hands of a data clerk.

"We found no evidence that management had exercised control over these pricing practices," the GAO said.

Ah, but it will. Commerce officials, after seeing a draft of the GAO report, have agreed to draw up a standard pricing plan for all the centers and put somebody in charge.