DEMOCRACY is on the ascendancy in Eastern Europe. News stories about Communist parties forming, restructuring, or collapsing appear daily. Nowhere are these meteoric conversions more evident than in Poland. On a recent visit to Poland, we became painfully aware that these sapling democratic movements could easily fall victim to their own growth spurt - long on budding enthusiasm, but bereft of the institutional root structure to support a governmental system.
Just a couple of months ago, when the Hungarian Communist Party met and reorganized, hardliners who dropped out typically equated democracy with chaos.
There is a continuing struggle in Eastern Europe, evident in East Germany, over whether to choose tyranny or anarchy. Hardliners maintain that tyranny is essential to keep order.
In Poland, where democratic forces have made their greatest strides, members of the new Polish Parliament recognizes another choice. They are quickly learning a lesson of democracy expressed by the late US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who wrote: ``The history of liberty has largely been the history of the observance of procedural safeguards.''
Leaders of the Polish parliament are currently considering the procedural safeguards under which they will operate. Recently, we joined prominent legislators from the United States and Western Europe to share experiences with the newly elected members of the Polish parliament.
Topics addressed the leadership system, the role of the committee chair, access to information and analysis, and floor debate and voting procedures. No organizational or procedural point seemed too insignificant for parliamentarians who had never seen a democratic parliament operate.
The agenda also underscored the partnership of democracy and discipline. The Polish parliamentarians were told that policymaking requires the application of the rule of law, debate must be conducted under fair rules, and the parliament must demand all relevant information from the Executive. It must also have an independent staff, and must possess an attitude of compromise for the nation's good.
While the discussion focused on basic parliamentary procedures, it often played against a larger philosophical backdrop. One Polish legislator expressed a reluctance to cut off debate. It seemed to her to be an undemocratic gesture. However, her Western colleagues defended the need for strict discipline under such circumstances.
During the discussion on access to information, it became apparent that Polish policymakers suffer from an enormous dearth of legislative resources. The parliament also labors under rules written for a one-party, rubber-stamp legislature. Virtually all of the Polish parliamentarians are freshmen, having no previous lawmaking experience.
While there are 49,000 laws on the books in Poland, no research capacity exists to find out what these laws are. These are resources we take for granted - the Library of Congress, a Congressional Budget Office, and committee staffs. Computers and typewriters are scarce, as are means to reproduce documents.
These newly democratic parliamentarians, who work full time for $12 a month, face very difficult policy choices as address their nation's economic crisis. They must act quickly, under intense public pressure from constituents who expect their lives to improve under Solidarity.
But these bright legislators are hamstrung. The US must do more than promote democratic values or pay off foreign debt. America must also share the critical tools that help make a democratic system function effectively.
Democracy is not only defined by its principles; it must also provide mechanisms and institutions that allow for informed debate and adequate consideration of public policy issues.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who chaired the conference session on the committee system, returned to Washington and introduced a Senate resolution to send key congressional representatives to study the needs of the Polish parliament.
The Poles have the commitment and energy to construct their newly democratic institution. The US can furnish their parliament with technical training, basic support equipment, and appropriate organizational expertise to build a solid structure. But this reinforcement must come quickly. The challenges are too daunting and the people too hopeful to wait much longer.