DESPITE THE SOLEMN backdrop, the House of Representatives can often be an arbitrary, even whimsical, place -- and no more so than when the topic at hand is appropriations. Last week, for example, despite the growing international consensus on the need to promote democracy in the Middle East, the House voted decisively for an appropriations bill amendment that would, among other things, cut a proposed increase in funding for the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

The money had been proposed for the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, one of the few American institutions seriously committed to long-term, grass-roots democracy promotion -- training judges, journalists, parliamentarians and others -- all over the world. Recognizing the organization's good work, President Bush proposed, in his most recent State of the Union speech, doubling the NED's budget to $80 million to expand its work in the Middle East -- not much, in comparison with the price of occupying Iraq. But in a difficult budgetary year, only $11 million was found for the increase. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) would cut that by a further $10 million, leaving an increase of only $1 million for promoting democracy.

The $10 million would be diverted to a small- business loan program -- one that the administration had declined to appropriate money for on the grounds that it should finance itself through fees, as do many similar programs. Given that the number of members who have constituents who work for small businesses is a good deal larger than the number of members whose constituents care passionately about the political condition of the Middle East, perhaps the vote isn't surprising. Nevertheless, it is a shortsighted decision -- and one that the House and Senate conference committee should seek to reverse.