What’s Wrong with the Voting Record of Polish- Americans in the 98th Congress?

Succumbing to isolationism and unilateral disarmament, Polish -American congressmen have become alienated from their own heritage and their constituents.

Polish-Americans, as a group, have traditionally enjoyed the reputation of being staunch anti-Communists, deeply religious, and patriotic Americans dedicated to the defense of their adopted homeland.

Is this popular conception corroborated by the voting record of Polish-American Congressmen? Do Polish-American legislators reflect the philosophy of their constituents? Before attempting to answer these questions, let me begin with a general characterization of the Polish-American contingent in the House.

There are twelve Polish-American congressmen including Gerald Kleczka from the 4th congressional district in Wisconsin, who is finishing the term of the recently deceased Clement J. Zablocki. The other eleven are: Robert A. Borski (D-Pa.), David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), William 0. Lipinski (D-Ill.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), Henry J. Nowak (D-N.Y.), Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), Michael L. Synar (D-Okla.). In my final analysis, I will also refer to the record of the late Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.).

 

The striking fact is that all Polish-Americans in the House are Democrats; one Republican, Edward Derwinski of Illinois, was defeated in the Republican primary in 1982. Most were elected from districts with a large population of Polish voters. Only Mrazek of the 3rd congressional district of New York and Synar of the 2nd congressional district in Oklahoma were elected from non-Polish districts. Most are Roman Catholics, except for Mrazek, who is a Methodist and Synar, who is an Episcopalian. Most are non-ideological, close to traditional, big-city, Democratic Party machines, and represent working class voters. They usually serve on practical, nuts-and-bolts committees such as Public Works (Borski, Lipinski, Nowak), Merchant Marine (Borski, Lipinski), and Transportation (Nowak). The exceptions are Rostenkowski, who holds one of the most important positions in Washington, the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Dingell who is now one of the most important legislators in Congress. Since 1981, Dingell has chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a body with jurisdiction over major regulatory legislation. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the late Clem Zablocki also held a prestigious position.

Five Polish-American congressmen were elected in 1982, Kleczka is finishing Zablocki’s term, several were elected in 1976 and 1978, and Rostenkowski and Dingell, with 13 and 15 terms respectively, are among the most senior Democrats in the House.

Virtually all the seats of these legislators are described as “safe” by the Almanac of American Politics 1984. This is probably due to the fact that most Polish-Americans in Congress are practical politicians who tend to their constituents’ immediate concerns. John Dingell’s introduction of “domestic content” legislation pleases his constituents, most of whom are auto workers. Polish “pride” may also play a role in the continuing popularity of some congressmen. Dan Rostenkowski is known as an able parliamentarian who is rather open to persuasion by lobbyists and who is often found touring the country, giving speeches, for high honoraria and playing golf rather than presiding over the Ways and Means Committee and casting votes in Congress. However, he remains vastly popular with his constituents and is considered virtually unbeatable.

The ideological wing of the Polish-American contingent is represented by Barbara Mikulski of the 3rd congressional district of Maryland, David Bonior of the 12th congressional district of Michigan, and Marcy Kaptur of the 9th congressional district of Ohio.

Mikulski is best known as an advocate of women’s issues; she also frequently speaks out against the President’s policy on Central America. Ted Kennedy selected her to make the speech nominating him at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, a speech that was never delivered.

Bonior has the reputation of being something of a maverick in a district dedicated to traditional values; he wears a beard and he handed out tiny trees as an environmental symbol in one of his campaigns. In foreign policy statements, he sounds like a leftist Democratic demagogue. Here is a sample of his rhetoric on the mining of Nicaraguan ports: “I am proud that a majority of this body has voted twice to stop funding the CIA-sponsored war against Nicaragua. I urge the House to stand by its convictions and reject any funds for a policy that is branding this nation as an international outlaw” (italics mine).

Kaptur was Carter’s White House Aide, but she ran and won her seat with the support of the AFL-CIO and the traditional Democratic Party machine of Toledo.

But it is in the area of foreign policy and national security that Polish-American legislators have compiled, with the notable exception of William O. Lipinski, a truly astonishing voting record that can only be described as one of defeatism, extreme isolationism, and unilateral disarmament.

Here are a few examples of their voting record in 1983:

  • On May 24, the House passed a Resolution in favor of a so-called “mutual and verifiable” nuclear freeze by a 278-149 margin. All Polish-American representatives except Lipinski voted’ for this resolution.
  • On May 24, the House agreed (239-186) to spend $625 million for additional testing and development of the MX missile. All Polish-American lawmakers except Lipinski and Zablocki voted against this resolution. It is significant that 91 Democrats voted th favor of MX funding; this is a larger number than that of Conservative Southern Democrats who usually vote with Republicans on matters of national defense.
  • On June 14, the house rejected an amendment by Rep. Frank McCloskey to kill multi-year procurement for the B-1 bomber. This amendment was called “nothing more than a flanking attack on the B-1 program.”                                                                                        Nine Polish-American legislators voted for the amendment, Rostenkowski and Zablocki voted against it. It is notable that while 154 Democrats voted for the amendment, an unusually large number of Democrats (105) voted against this amendment. Polish-American solons were clearly to the left of many of their Democratic colleagues on this amendment, which was rejected.
  • On September 29, the House by a 302-109 margin overwhelmingly approved a bill to create Radio Marti, authorizing $25 million in 1984-85 to begin broadcasting to Cuba. Democrats voted 155 to 109 for this bill. Even here four Polish-Americans (Dingell, Mrazek, Nowak, and Sikorski) voted against the appropriation for these broadcasts. Some Polish-Americans in the House apparently do not believe in resisting Communism at all; they even begrudge relatively small expenditures for a Freedom Radio for Cuba which should have been established long ago.

To take more recent examples:

  • On May 10, 1984, the House rejected by an over-whelming margin of 287-128 an amendment by Gerry Studds which sought to impose a series of “human rights” conditions on Salvadoran military aid that were even more drastic than those proposed by the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Studds amendment would also force the Salvadoran government to conduct “negotiations without preconditions” with the Communist guerrillas.

The Studds amendment was too radical even for the majority of Democrats, who rejected it by a 131-125 vote. It is significant that there were six Polish members (Bonior, Kaptur, Mikulski, Mrazek, Nowak, and Sikorski) who voted with the radical leftist minority of their party.

  • Also on May 12,1984, the House finally approved, by a narrow 212-208 margin, a bipartisan compromise amendment by Representatives William Broomfield (R -Mich.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.), authorizing President Reagan’s economic and military aid requests for Central American nations — in particular El Salvador — in fiscal 1984-85. Eleven Polish-American lawmakers voted against the amendment. (Rostenkowski did not vote.)

Quite apart from their anti-defense voting record, Polish-Americans in Congress have not initiated any legislation on behalf of democratic opposition in Poland. They have not protested the massive violations of human rights in Poland under martial law; they failed to introduce any resolutions to condemn the imprisonment of the Solidarity and KOR eleven. They did nothing to help liberalize asylum procedures for Poles who do not wish to return to Jaruzelski’s Poland, despite the high rejection rate of applications by the INS. No Polish-American legislators were associated with legislation to increase funding to modernize the obsolete equipment for the Freedom Radios (VOA, RFE/RL). No Polish-American lawmaker joined Representative Tom Corcoran in his resolution to condemn the Yalta agreement. No Polish-American representative supported legislation introduced by Senator William Armstrong to ban Soviet imports manufactured with slave labor. Nor did Polish-Americans in the House support efforts by Senators John Heinz and Jake Garn to strengthen controls on the export of high technology to the Soviet Union. Some Polish-American organizations, especially the socio-political movement Pomost (The Bridge), displayed great interest in these bills and resolutions and lobbied energetically to have them implemented.

In short, Polish-Americans in Congress are divorced from the problems of repression in Poland and seem unaware of the role the Soviet Union plays in these repressions. They seem to be completely alienated from their own heritage and from the concerns of many Polish-American voters.

How can one explain this abysmal voting record and this strange alienation from Polish-American concerns? Although a definitive answer could be offered only after a further study, perhaps a tentative reply can be set forth now.

The Congressional Democratic Party traditionally had three roughly equal factions: southern conservatives, ethnic machine loyalists, and issue-oriented liberals. As late as the early 1970’s, one could find the first two groups supporting a strong defense policy and, for the most part, the efforts of a centrist Republican president to end the Vietnam war in a way that would preserve South Vietnam’s independence. Some of the issue-oriented liberals also believed in a strong foreign policy. This coalition is now a shambles. There are few JFK and Henry “Scoop” Jackson Democrats left; the party has been taken over by the McGovern advocates of unilateral disarmament and isolationism. This process was first started with the election of the “Vietnam class” of Congressmen in 1974 and was reinforced by the election of 1982 when Democrats gained 26 seats. Moderate Democrats can voice their personal convictions only at considerable risks to their careers. Shortly after Ronald Reagan was sworn in, moderate Democrats were purged from Foreign Affairs subcommittees by secret ballot. Representative Gus Yatron of Pennsylvania was deposed as chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee in favor of Representative Michael Barnes of Maryland; Representative Dan Mica of Florida then lost to Representative Howard Wolpe of Michigan for chairmanship of the Africa subcommittee.

This ruthless liberal-radical pressure helps explain Jim Wright’s flip-flop on the MX from 1982 to 1983 and more recently, his volte-face on Nicaragua. In January 1984 he endorsed the Kissinger Commission Report on Central America which called for “continued help for anti-Marxist forces fighting to break the power monopoly in Nicaragua.”

Three months later, Wright, with nine of his Democratic colleagues, most of whom are to the left of him, (Barnes, Boland, and Solarz were among the signatories) sent the now infamous “Dear Commandante” letter to Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega. The letter condemned U.S. pressures against the Nicaraguan government and praised Ortega’s “decision . . . to reduce press censorship.” The second paragraph stressed: “We have been and remain opposed to U.S. support for military action against the people or government of Nicaragua.”

Jim Wright is a majority leader and his ambition is to succeed Tip O’Neill as speaker of the House. Obviously he feels that he must compromise his convictions on weapons systems and Central America or he would put his career on the line.

The case of the late Clem Zablocki was particularly disturbing. Zablocki was the only Wisconsin Democrat to support the Vietnam War policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Born in 1912, he was an adult in the late thirties and undoubtedly knew the dangers of appeasement and unilateral disarmament. Yet as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee he was induced by young radical subcommittee chairmen to speak as a major sponsor of the nuclear freeze resolution. This resulted in an embarrassment: Zablocki was unable to answer questions in line with pro-freeze orthodoxy, and the issue had to be postponed. Zablocki was an able legislator, a man of principle, and a decent human being, but he was not particularly aggressive and let his subcommittee chairmen take the initiative. It could not have been a happy situation for him. There is something tragic about the compromises this fine man made in the twilight of career.

The voting record of Polish-Americans in Congress reveals that they suffer from the same malaise that has afflicted the entire Democratic Party for the last decade. They suffer from a radical world view which makes them automatically sympathetic to any Marxist-terrorist guerrilla operation anywhere in the world, they suffer from profound skepticism about America’s role in international politics, they suffer from the same malaise of isolationism and unilateral disarmament that has made the Democratic Party as irresponsible as the German Social Democratic Party of Willie Brandt and the British Labor Party.

It is not my intention at this time to speculate whether or not the Democratic Party will ultimately self-destruct. At any rate, Polish-Americans cannot play a major role in reversing its degenerative processes. They can, however, either influence eleven Polish-American Congressmen to moderate their views or, failing this, elect other men and women who would reflect more faithfully the views and emotions of Polish-Americans.

Do Polish-Americans known how their Congressmen vote? Probably not; the average person does not regularly read roll call votes in the Congressional Record. At election time, domestic issues take precedence over foreign policy. It is the duty of Polish-American organizations, especially the most dynamic of them, Pomost, to put the facts before the Polish-American electorate. Once this is done, it is likely the ancient slogan of American politics will reverberate throughout the land: “Throw the rascals out!”

By

Magnus Jan Krynski was a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Duke University, Durham, N.C. He passed away in 1989.

MENU