Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch are not frequently found on the same side of controverted issues. This past September, however, they joined with Senators Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar, Daniel Moynihan, and Warren Rudman in co-authoring a “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow senators, in support of the FY 1987 appropriation for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
One might think that the NED would be lodged safely in the bosom of the federal budget, immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune-fiscal, political, or otherwise. In fact, NED has had several narrow escapes in its brief, three-year life. The endowment was the concrete result of perhaps the finest speech of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an address to the British Parliament, gathered in historic Westminster Hall in May 1982. There, the president called for an active American campaign to help build the infrastructure of democracy in countries struggling to free themselves from traditional or modern forms of tyranny. The model for such work had been established by, among others, the West German political party foundations that had been instrumental in helping Spain and Portugal make the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.
NED, established in 1983, has been attacked from both the right and left wings of American politics ever since. Some conservatives feared that the endowment would become a boondoggle for junketing politicos; others on the right were quite satisfied with General Pinochet, thank you very much. On the left, the canons of post-Vietnam neo-isolationism taught that America was incapable of intervening for good ends in Communist and/or Third World situations. This view was often reinforced by (selective) memories of the days when the United States tried to build democratic regimes through covert means.
These opinions have led to bizarre coalitions in opposition to NED’S annual appropriation in the Congress; one would look long and hard to find another issue on which Congressman Ron Dellums and Senator Jesse Helms would be in tacit partnership. In the midst of these funding battles, the NED has quietly gone about building an impressive track record of grant making: helping pay for poll watchers and vote counters in the Philippines; supporting democratic opponents of apartheid in South Africa; funding a project in which anti-Communist Afghans prepare textbooks to teach Afghani children not under Soviet occupation; helping launch a new magazine, The Chinese Intellectual, which is building bridges between Chinese reformers and the democratic West; and pro- viding support to “Conciencia,” an Argentine women’s civic movement to strengthen women’s commitment to democratic ideals, and to give them a civic education that enables them to participate in their country’s political and community life.
This past fall, yet another attempt was made to kill the NED, this time by transferring its appropriation to the Fulbright scholarship program (a proposal made by Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas). Thus, the importance of the letter to their colleagues from Messrs. Bradley, Hatch, Kennedy, Lugar, Moynihan, and Rudman: it suggested that the NED had finally reached a critical mass of bipartisan support in the Congress, such that both liberals and conservatives could join in an effort to save the endowment.
That effort was successful: the Senate vote to support the NED appropriation was 79 to 19; the House voted 228 in favor of NED to 121 against, with 82 not voting.
So one may hope that the National Endowment for Democracy will be spared future assassination attempts, and can get on with the vital job it was established to perform. But this good news must be tempered by two disconcerting facts about this past fall’s appropriations vote. First, NED was opposed by the entire House black caucus. One wonders why those who claim the mantle of the great American civil rights revolution of the 1960s should, to a man, oppose American efforts to support democrats abroad. Second, the appropriation in question was for a mere $15 million. Yes, the federal deficit is outlandish. But $15 million from the richest country in the world to support fellow democrats abroad?
It seems a bit parsimonious. But then $15 million beats defunding. Two and a half cheers, then, for this milepost on the road to peace and freedom.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.