WASHINGTON — $20,000. $50,000. $100,000. The big money from ``fat cats'' is flowing again through American elections. ``Sewer money,'' one critic calls it. Brooks Jackson, author of a new study of the Federal Election Commission, charges that money from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy contributors is making a mockery out of America's campaign reform laws.
``The situation developing today is similar to what happened before Watergate,'' Mr. Jackson says.
Jackson blames much of the problem on the Federal Election Commission, which was set up after the Watergate scandal.
``The FEC has failed,'' he says. ``It has neither the will nor the means to deter wanton violators, who sometimes ridicule openly the commission's weakness. It has interpreted the law so permissively that special interest groups may funnel money to candidates practically without limit if they wish.''
Jackson, formerly an investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal, makes his charges in a just-released 90-page report for the Twentieth Century Fund entitled, ``Broken Promise: Why the Federal Election Commission Failed.''
In his study, Jackson portrays the FEC as an agency immobilized by congressional rules, and by its own partisan alignment. With six members, the FEC is divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.
The frequent result of this equal division is stalemate. In case after case, the commission splits 3 to 3 - unable to act against even the most obvious violators of the law. Republican members protect Republican politicians and contributors; Democratic members protect Democratic politicians and contributors.
Currently, leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill are showing renewed interest in campaign reform.
Jackson, however, suggests that new, tougher laws may be of no avail unless the FEC is turned into a watchdog with teeth. But that prospect frightens many politicians.
Jackson's report is filled with examples of ineptitude and impotence at the FEC, including the six-year-old case of Mark R. Weinberg of Beverly Hills, Calif. During the 1984 presidential race of Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, Mr. Weinberg contributed $45,000 to the campaign.
``The $45,000 was a blatantly clear-cut violation of the $1,000 limit on an individual's gifts to a presidential primary campaign,'' Jackson observes.
Furthermore, Weinberg never disputed his guilt, telling Jackson: ``I agreed from day one that I did it.''
Yet after five years, the FEC has not collected a penny in fines. The FEC staff complained for a time that it was difficult to track Weinberg down because he had an unlisted telephone number.
Jackson's study explains why the FEC has so few teeth: Congress has pulled them.
In its early years, the FEC had a small team of tough inspectors, who cracked down on a number of politicians. But all that enforcement activity, including audits of some incumbents' campaigns, made Congress jittery, and the FEC was forced to get rid of its investigative arm. Now it relies on desk-bound lawyers to probe cases.
Step by step, Congress squeezed every part of the FEC. It outlawed investigations that result from anonymous tips. It banned random audits of congressmen's campaign accounts.
Just as important, Congress pinched FEC's budget, thereby reducing its staff of auditors and record keepers.
Solutions? Jackson suggests several pages of changes, ranging from tough to mild.
A tough solution: cut the FEC from six members to five, to break the current 3 to 3 ties. Give the chairman strong authority, and preferably make him someone without ties to either party.
A milder solution: Add a seventh, nonpartisan member. Possibly make him the chairman.
A weak alternative: Keep the current setup, but allow any citizen to sue when the law is broken. Currently only the FEC can bring action against a violator.