It was a balmy day for the last week of October, but inside the cluttered, hectic press office of the Federal Election Commission, it was a muggy 80 degrees. The summerlike temperature couldn't have been anticipated when the air conditioners were turned off in September. So the four staff members had no choice but to go about their business, sweltering under the flimsy breeze of desktop fans.
The business here is elections. For the press office staff -- as for the rest of the FEC -- this is the most frenzied time of their working lives.
An Associated Press ticker tape machine keeps the office in touch with the nation. Staff members are busy cutting, splicing and pasting articles from the day's newspapers to compile "News and Views," the FEC news summary that some people have said is Washington's best political digest.
Meanwhile, press officer Fred S. Eiland is busy fielding calls from across the country, mostly from newspaper reporters who need financial information about their local congressional candidates. "Reporters out in the country now have a new source," Eiland said.
The FEC's candidate financial reports have increased in both importance and public attention. Eiland's office now has a mailing list to 150 news organizations in all 50 states -- and the names of candidates whose reports are filed late end up in a news release that is mailed to publications in those candidates' home districts.
The expanded press operation is part of a new "outreach" program designed to make the FEC's resources available outside the Capital Beltway. One experimental program has linked the FEC computer to terminals in a handful of cities across the country so people could have virtually instant access to the candidate financial information now on file in Washington.
FEC staffers also provide information over a toll-free "hot line" to candidates and campaign treasurers who have queries about the nuances of the campaign finance laws. In addition, the agency holds a series of regional workshops every four years to educate prospective candidates. "We advertise it, and we urge anyone who is a candidate or who works for a campaign to attend," Eiland said.
Eiland says he believes that the new outreach efforts have led to "a decline in the number of violations, or alleged violations."
Meanwhile, 21 auditors in the agency's Reports Analysis Division study contribution and expenditure forms to make sure that candidates comply with the law.
Forty attorneys on the general counsel's staff provide the legal expertise for the six commissioners, who must decide cases ranging from Lyndon H. LaRouche's complaint that he was unfairly excluded from a Democratic primary debate in Philadelphia, to whether independent candidates such as John B. Anderson should get federal matching funds. The FEC receives about 100 complaints a year. The legal staff can also initiate proceedings, or give advisory opinions when candidates request them.
The agency has 245 people to collect, analyze and disseminate regular financial reports on 4,000 political action committees and 2,200 candidates. In October alone, there were almost 15,000 reports.
The 10-year-old agency has had a somewhat tortured infancy, with even its supporters wondering until recently whether it would survive.
The commission is in the business of monitoring -- and when need be, challenging -- politicians running for Congress. It is a role that is not designed to endear them to the congressmen who control their budgets between elections.
"Some people philosophically don't believe there should be any control over the election process," Eiland said. "We went through a period when we weren't even sure we would continue to exist."
The Supreme Court once declared the commission, as it was then organized, to be unconstitutional; the Reagan administration, meanwhile, has slashed its budget requests.
Lately, however, the adversity seems to be on the wane. For fiscal 1985, the FEC has received $12.9 million -- still almost a million dollars less than the commission had wanted, but enough to pay for a long-overdue move to offices where the air conditioners, when they're turned on, won't sound like Washington National Airport.
Some say that with record-high spending for Senate and House races this year, more people are willing to concede that there is a need for a watchdog, and that that translates into support for the FEC. Says Eiland: "People in general are becoming more aware that there are federal laws. We feel that now we are a permanent agency.