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Helping democracy abroad

During House debate this June over establishing the proposed National Endowment for Democracy, a liberal Maryland Democrat and a conservative California Republican both rose to describe their recent journey to Venezuela. Michael Barnes and Robert Lago-marsino, Democratic chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, of the House Western Hemisphere Affairs subcommittee, had traveled to Caracas as representatives of their political parties to confer with leaders of Venezuela's two major political parties. They described to the Venezuelans how US political parties, labor, and business intended to cooperate in helping democratic movements a-broad through the coordinating mechanism of the bipartisan endowment. The enthusiastic response of our Latin American friends came as no surprise to us.

As co-chairmen of the research study that developed the endowment proposal, we know that from its earliest days, our ''Democracy Program'' - a unique collaboration of the Republican and Democratic parties with labor and business - has gained strong support from foreign observers in every corner of the world representing the spectrum of democratic political belief. The endowment would allow our nongovernmental institutions to help democratic friends and colleagues abroad, much as the political party foundations in the Federal Republic of Germany have developed widely acclaimed programs in five dozen countries since the early 1960s largely through government funding.

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With support from both the Reagan administration and the bipartisan congressional leadership, our executive board and staff worked six months before agreeing on an interim report which proposed creating the endowment to fund (among other groups) four major grantees: separate Republican and Democratic Institutes for International Affairs (modeled after the German foundations), a Free Trade Union Institute, and a Center for International Private Enterprise.

No one-man band nor single ideology designed the endowment proposal.

By the time our proposals (in H.R. 2915) reached the House floor where the bill passed as amended, they had already been approved, after hearings, by both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One aspect of the bill met significant opposition in the full House. A majority of members rejected earmarking funds for the two party institutes, ''the most intriguing of these programs,'' according to the Washington Post, since the institutes ''would help the American political parties reach out to their democratic allies abroad.''

Opponents stressed two themes: budget deficits and the question of using public funds to support the international activities of American parties. Obviously, the $5 million allotted to each party institute remains more a symbol to some legislators than a genuine element in curing the deficits.

Interestingly enough, it was a cadre of Republican conservatives who pointed to the international record of the AFL-CIO's training institutes in using US government funds for decades in assisting local free labor movements battle communist unions on four continents. Now, with business joining the fray by developing comparable training programs, several GOP conservatives urged defeat of the amendment, (in Rep. Jack Kemp's words) in order ''to send a signal to the people of the world who yearn for free enterprise and free labor that we mean what we say when we give speeches in support of democracy, human rights, and movements such as Solidarity in Poland and democracy in Central America or wherever.'' They were joined by several Democrats including Kika de la Garza, who appealed to the House to ''plant a small seed of democratic institutions'' and to ''let the people who make it work'' in this country help their counterparts elsewhere.

We believe that when Congress returns in September both the House and Senate will send that unmistakable signal to those who cherish democracy throughout the world by approving the entire National Endowment for Democracy proposal, including the party institutes. After that, the endowment and its grantees will have a chance to show Congress and the American people that timely, effective, and long-range programs of a nongov-ernmental nature can prove essential to our friends abroad. Allowing the political parties to help spread the message and methods of democracy in the world is long overdue. Even the skeptics will discover soon enough, to coin a phrase, that they have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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