T HAS NOT been a good season for the Federal Election Commission. Its two major functions are to interpret and enforce campaign finance laws and to disclose who receives and who gives political contributions. Within the past six months it has bungled both. Its major interpretations of the law rest on premises that are absurd. One ruling held that elections for Michigan's Republican precinct delegates, who choose state and therefore national convention delegates, are not part of the presidential campaign; another held that the millions of "soft money" contributions centrally collected, centrally counted, and centrally disbursed by the national parties should not be centrally disclosed. And when it came time to cut its budget to meet Gramm-Rudman requirements, the commission decided to gut its computerized data information program.
Of the latter decision the Senate Rules Committee heard strenuous criticism in hearings last Wednesday. Nothing the commission does or can do is more fundamental than disclosure; yet it is disclosure that is cut. True, the books are still available at the new FEC headquarters. But effective disclosure requires access through computer, and the commission itself recognizes that its cuts will cause "a reduction in timeliness, since data entry time will probably double; accuracy of detailed information may be reduced because less expensive methods of data entry will be used; and availability of detailed information will be reduced." Since some cuts are already in effect, and others may come in June, timely information about who is giving and who is getting money for the 1986 election will in many cases not be available.
This is all the more unfortunate, because the FEC, operating on an unduly tight budget and under hostile scrutiny from many members of Congress, has done yeoman work in making public disclosures available through computer. Its staff performs competently and with unusual dedication tasks that are often tedious and generally unappreciated. The senators who heard the testimony about the effects of the recent cuts and were reportedly dismayed have it within their power to make a difference here. They can vote the FEC a budget for fiscal year 1987 that permits it to do its work of disclosure the way it should and has proved it can do. The agency's budget is only $12 million, and yet it sits at the pivot of the whole political system. Congress may not be able to force the FEC to come up with sensible decisions on campaign finance law. But it at least can insist that the agency do the basic job of disclosure for which it was created.