WASHINGTON — WILL presidential candidates in 1996 be campaigning with a tin cup?
The Federal Election Commission (FEC), which provides millions of dollars for presidential hopefuls, says it's going broke. By '96, there may not be even one thin dime for the presidential primaries, and the national conventions may also go begging.
The problem is twofold.
First, fewer Americans are making the $1 checkoff contribution to the FEC's presidential campaign fund, which provided nearly $175 million for the 1992 presidential race.
Second, the law setting up the checkoff is basically flawed. While it allows every taxpayer to contribute $1 a year, it fails to allow for inflation. So with costs steadily rising, the fund would eventually run dry, even if every taxpayer chipped in $1.
Republicans, who have held the White House for the past 12 years, weren't terribly concerned about the problem until now. After all, if the FEC was out of cash, it would make it harder for Democrats to mount an effective challenge to a Republican president.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Democrats will control the White House in 1996, and it will be Republican challengers who will be looking for a boost from the FEC's campaign fund.
Joan Aikens, a Republican and the current chairman of the FEC, has joined her fellow commissioners in urging Congress to act quickly to fix the problem.
Mrs. Aikens estimates that $213 million will be needed to pay for all three phases of the 1996 election - the primaries, the national conventions, and the general election campaign.
"The deficit could be as much as $100 million," she says. "There will be no money whatsoever for primary candidates."
A congressional source who works on campaign legislation says the Democratic leadership hopes to move early in 1993 to address the problem. But currently, no specific solution is favored.
Several options are available to lawmakers.
* Congress could simply abolish the presidential campaign fund and let candidates raise money the old-fashioned way, by asking for it from private contributors. That's the way congressional candidates still do it.
* Congress could index the $1 checkoff, so that after adjustment for inflation, each checkoff would now be worth about $2.80. That would refill the FEC's treasury if the change were made well before 1996.
* Congress could scrap the current system and simply appropriate the necessary funds every four years. But that might leave the financing system open to politicking by the majority party.
FEC officials say they are somewhat disappointed with the current system because so few Americans participate. Federal tax forms allow each taxpayer to check either "yes" or "no" to the option of giving $1 to the presidential campaign fund. A yes vote takes the money out of the federal treasury, not directly out of the taxpayer's pocket.
Ten years ago, about 29 percent of all taxpayers said yes. Today that has dropped to 19 percent, the lowest participation since the program began in the 1970s.
One theory officials provide for the decline is that taxpayers, reflecting the widespread skepticism about public officials, are hesitant to turn over cash for use in politics.