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THE FEDERAL Election Commission, born 20 years ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal, has sometimes been accused of timidity in enforcing federal campaign-finance rules designed to promote honest elections.

Last year, though, if civil penalties collected for violations of the rules are any indication, enforcement took a commendable turn for the better.

Nearly $1.7 million in civil penalties were collected by the commission in negotiated settlements of disputes.

These included the largest ever, a $550,000 penalty from Prudential Securities Inc. for illegal corporate contributions to 10 candidates from 1986 to 1990.

The total $1.7 million in civil penalties collected last year exceeded similar penalties collected in the prior four years combined.

Despite this invigorated enforcement activity, the new Republican House has just carved a full 10 percent out of the current year's FEC budget of $27.1 million. Since this federal budget year is nearly half over, Danny L. McDonald, commission chair, correctly complains that carrying out the reduction would really amount to a steep 20 percent trim.

McDonald noted, too, that this reduction was "substantially higher" than for any other agency covered within the appropriations structure for U.S. Treasury and Postal Service functions.

The amounts clearly seem larger than what can be justified just as strict economizing. This attempt to impose steep budget cuts on the commission just after a year of vigorous enforcement of federal campaign finance laws raises troubling suspicions.

Are the cutbacks a warning from House GOP winners in the 1994 elections to take it easy? Do they truly believe the commission has been unfair or faulty in its administration of the law?

If the former is true, the cutbacks cannot be justified at all. If the House really considers that the commission has been unfair, then the responsible course is not to hack away at the budget but to address the policy differences in open hearings.

In either case, with the budget year nearly half gone, the Senate should restore the House cutbacks. At the least, the full Congress should settle on more reasonable economies in line with those extracted from other agency budgets.

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