DEMOCRATIC Czechoslovakia has done everything and more to become eligible for "most favored nation" (meaning normal) tariff treatment on its exports. The privilege would not only reward its sweeping political transformation but would also supply an immediate economic boost, because, unlike the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia has important dutiable goods that are in American demand. MFN for Prague and the trade agreement of which it is part, however, are still hung up in the bureaucracy, and there is some anxiety that Congress, with a full plate and not much time, may let the package fall through the cracks. Delay would be painful. MFN for the Czechs now!

But not yet for the Romanians. Romania in recent weeks has stood firmly with the United States in meeting the crisis in the Persian Gulf. It is paying a price in debt payments and trading opportunities forgone, and perhaps Washington can help cushion that impact by directing more crude oil to Romania's underused refineries or by taking up its offer to supply crisis-needed aviation fuel. MFN, however, is in its own category. Its granting or withholding has become a lever for encouraging liberalization in the old Soviet bloc. Post-Ceausescu Romania still has far to go in containing the police, releasing prisoners, protecting dissent and freeing the media. Formerly the conduct of a foreign policy on the American wavelength was enough to ensure MFN for Bucharest. The democratic revolution in Eastern Europe changed the rules.

It changed the rules, in fact, in a very inconsistent manner. It used to be that MFN for Communist countries was tied, by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, to their practice of free emigration. Now emigration is no longer a problem, and, with the tolerance of Congress, the Bush administration has come to use MFN as an all-purpose, country-by-country political tool.

Romania has long had a good record on emigration but is now denied MFN on political grounds. Not without reason it points to China, which, despite an appalling record on human rights and pluralism, retains MFN because the administration determined that withholding it would be too disruptive. The Soviet Union serves up more emigrants than receiving countries can take, but the granting of MFN to it hinges on its enactment of an emigration law, which it hasn't gotten around to yet. The administration needs congressional prodding to put some greater consistency into a policy that has its logic but is vulnerable for being embarrassingly arbitrary.