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The federal government spends $1.4 trillion a year. That's $1,400,000,000,000.00. Of that sum, less than two-one-thousandths of 1 percent, $25 million, goes to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a semiprivate agency that promotes democratic parties and democratic institutions around the world.

NED plants seeds. It has helped organize and strengthen democrats in undemocratic countries (like Poland, Nicaragua and Chile before the revolutions of 1989-90) with grants of simple but powerful tools such as printing presses and computers. It helps anchor newly emerging democracies by training them in techniques of party organization, coalition building, and free elections. And it does this by spending less money in a year than McDonald's spends in a month on TV.Yet last week the House of Representatives came so close to killing the Endowment that supporters withdrew its funding request in the hope that NED might be revived later in the Senate.

This is an old story. NED has been under continual assault in Congress since its inception in 1983. In the early years, before the seed money planted abroad had borne any fruit, NED was an easy target. It came close to being defunded several times. But even now, after the presidents of Hungary, Poland, Nicaragua and the Philippines have offered public praise and thanks to NED, the attack continues.

Opponents seem to get almost irrationally exercised about NED. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., who introduced an amendment to cut NED's appropriations in half, said on the floor of the House that NED ("bordering on being fascist") had received "untold millions" from "the intelligence agencies," a charge wholly without foundation.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., one of the barons of the House, called NED "an agency out of control . . . engaged in institutional and ideological empire building," a charge that, leveled at an agency that gets less funding than Agriculture's screwworm control program, can only be termed droll.

Other charges are more serious. Some members are upset over NED's slowness in distributing aid to anti-apartheid groups in South Africa. (Defenders of NED say that the charge is unfair because the money was bottled up in another agency over which NED has no control.)

Other critics point to a GAO report that some of the money is mismanaged. But the kind of enterprise that NED is involved in is extremely hard to manage airtightly. NED specializes in small grants to small groups in faraway places. As Rep. Robert Lagomarsino, R-Calif., pointed out in the floor debate, "It is unthinkable to require extensive, high-priced $25,000 audits for $20,000 grants."

But the underlying reason for the opposition to NED is far more basic: Why spend anything to bring democracy to foreigners? Rep. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., rose to oppose NED with this argument: "I will tell my colleagues about a democracy we ought to start endowing. It's this democracy right here. Our democracy could use some endowment right now."

Now, if one is going to say to heck with the world and to helping democracy abroad, let's be serious about it.

If one is going to be an isolationist, let's do it right. Start by getting our troops out of Europe and save $100 billion to $150 billion a year off the bat. Take the ax to defense. That is where the money is. The idea that returning to the Treasury NED's $25 million is going to enhance American democracy at home is simply absurd.

It is particularly absurd because NED is probably the single most cost-effective agency of the U.S. government. A small grant to a small group in a small country can yield a large result.

(NED funds helped 200,000 poor voters get the small photographs required to vote in the 1988 Chilean referendum. That referendum ended the Pinochet dictatorship. The program cost $25,000.)

We will, of course, occasionally give money to the wrong people. But even if we are right only part of the time, we end up establishing friendships and ties with democratic movements abroad that are immensely valuable to the United States.

The reason is simple. Democracies end up being friends of the United States, markets for our products and sources of support for our endeavors abroad. NED is an astonishingly cheap means for advancing these ends.

And honorable, too. Dave McCurdy, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, points out that in the old days giving printing presses to besieged trade unionists and other such stuff had to be done by the CIA. That connection unfairly tainted perfectly legitimate activities and perfectly honorable foreign friends who collaborated with us.

Since we have nothing to hide, why do it with spies and why do it in secret? NED is a way to get out from under that Cold War secrecy and promote democracy in the open. Supporting democracy is a vital American endeavor. It is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be stingy about.