Democracy at Its Best

As a former elected official, it's nice to see something I set in motion continue, even though I'm no longer in office.

Case in point: the House Democracy Assistance Commission.

In late 1989, I was part of the first congressional delegation to visit Berlin after the Berlin Wall opened up, permitting democracy to flourish in the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

Our delegation met with pro-democracy reformers from East Germany. We saluted their efforts and asked what Congress could do to help. Their response was that we could teach them how to run a democratic parliament.

Upon our return, I went to see Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and urged him to establish a working group to assist the various emerging democracies in Eastern and Central Europe.

Foley liked the idea and appointed me chairman of a special bi-partisan House Task Force to help the democracies in that part of the world. I had a personal interest in Eastern and Central Europe, since my mother’s family was originally from Lithuania and my father’s family came to the United States from Germany.

For the next five years, what became known as the Frost Commission helped fledgling democratic parliaments in 10 countries — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania. We provided them with computer hardware, helped establish parliamentary libraries and research institutes and conducted training sessions for newly-elected members of Parliament and parliamentary staff. Our program cost only $15 million and generated enormous goodwill for the United States.

My work on the commission in the early and mid-1990s was among the most interesting and satisfying things I did during my entire 26-year congressional career.

The task force went out of existence when the Republicans took control of the House in 1995. However, two years ago, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R- Ill.) reconstituted it under the new name of the House Democracy Assistance Commission, naming Rules Committee head David Dreier (R-Calif.) as chair and Democratic Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) as ranking member. The commission brought parliamentarians from a number of countries to the United States to learn about our government during 2005 and 2006.

Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House Democracy Assistance Commission would continue its work, with Price becoming chair and Dreier becoming ranking member.

The current work of the commission will not be identical to what my task force undertook 17 years ago. Times have changed, and resources are tight. However, whatever the commission attempts can be helpful and will win us friends around the world.

The commission’s work will now focus on Afghanistan, Colombia, East Timor, the Republic of Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Indonesia, Liberia, Mongolia, Ukraine, Macedonia and Kenya. Some commission members visited Georgia and Ukraine during the Easter congressional recess. Delegations from Colombia and Lebanon visited Washington, D.C., in late April for orientation sessions with the Congressional Research Service.

This is extremely important work, with little or no benefit back home in their districts for the members of Congress who do that work. Members are doing something significant for democracy in general and for our country specifically. They take the work seriously and should be thanked by their constituents, even though the time they spend doesn’t bring any pork back home. It simply makes our world a better place.

Democratic members on the commission from this Congress are Price, Lois Capps (D-Calif.), Rush Holt (D-N.J.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Donald Payne (D-N.J.), Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), John Salazar (D-Colo.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Republican members of the commission are Dreier, John Boozman (R-Ark.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

Speaker Pelosi and Speaker Hastert before her are to be commended for recognizing the significance of this project and for appointing serious-minded members to the commission.

The commission works closely with the State Department (specifically USAID) and with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress, as well as several standing committees of the House.

The key to its success is understanding that the exact form democracy takes will vary from country to country, and that we can’t impose our system in toto on any other nation. We can, however, provide both technical help and inspiration. It’s nice to see Congress taking some time to help us win friends around the world at a time when not everything we do abroad is popular.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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