Does it make sense to risk destroying the integrity of a $1.8 billion enterprise in order to save $150,000? That is one way you could phrase the question raised by the Federal Election Commission's planned shutdown of some of its computerized data operations this year. The $1.8 billion is the amount spent over the last two-year cycle on federal elections, and the $150,000 is the amount the FEC plans to save yearly "by reducing the computerization of itemized information."
What this means in plain English is that the politicians, the press and the public will not be able to uncover much of the basic information about individual and political action committee contributions. This is not just a parochial concern of the press, either; last year the FEC provided about 75,000 computer printouts in response to specific requests. The FEC observes that Gramm-Rudman- Hollings forces it to cut its already lean $12 million budget and goes on to decide, without any real justification, that "all opportunities for rational reductions in nonpersonnel costs would be exhausted before personnel reductions would be addressed." In other words, cut the fundamental mission of the agency -- disclosure -- before you lay anyone off or even cut the payroll through attrition.
There is one chance for at least a partial reprieve. At the initiative of the staff, the FEC is continuing to provide PAC data even though the funding for this has been cut. The commission has said it will decide in June whether it can continue doing so. Its answer should be yes -- even if it means taking a second look at the 70 percent of the agency's budget that goes for personnel. If the answer is no, compiling and publicizing basic data about which political action committees are giving money to whom will be well nigh impossible until after the 1986 election. One of the major purposes of the federal campaign finance laws has been disclosure, and until its recent response to Gramm-Rudman one of the major achievements of the FEC has been to make disclosure meaningful by making data available to all who want it. Is there any chance the FEC can start moving in that right direction again?