By Aram Arkun
WASHINGTON — Next year Frank Pallone Jr. will mark his 25th anniversary as a congressman. As the representative of central New Jersey, he made his mark on environmental and health issues. He is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the highest-ranking Democrat on the latter’s Subcommittee on Health. He is a member of some 45 House member caucuses dealing with a range of matters. Armenians know him best as a strong and active voice on Armenian issues in Congress, primarily through the vehicle of the Armenian Caucus.
Pallone related recently in an interview that when he was younger he sometimes would go to Armenian picnics and visit St. Stepanos Armenian Church in Elberon, NJ. He said, “I was always familiar with the Armenian community.” In fact, at present, he can see St. Stepanos when he looks out of the window of his home, but despite his physical proximity to an Armenian church, there are not that many Armenians in his Congressional district (the sixth).
It appears that it was lRosalie Chorbajian. Chorbajian, Pallone said, “maintained all kinds of information, worked with the [Armenian] embassy and made contacts with different members of Congress who were pro-Armenian. She suggested to me that we start a caucus.” Pallone and Rep. John Porter, a Republican, founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in the beginning of 1995.
Pallone said, “The main thing was to make people aware of the US-Armenia relationship and support Armenia’s efforts, whether to achieve Genocide recognition, get funding for assistance to Armenia and Karabagh or pass Section 907. The list is a long one.” He added that it served “to be protective of Armenia, given all the threats that it faces.” Without such a group focusing attention on Armenia, its issues would tend to get lost in the multitude of issues Congress faces. Indeed, the Armenian Caucus and the Armenian lobby have been considered to be among the most effective of the ethnic lobbies in the US.
Armenia, along with India and Israel, ended up as Pallone’s primary focus in foreign affairs in Congress. He became a founder of the Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and the Congressional Caucus on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Americans, of which he is still co-chair. Though he spends most of his time on domestic issues, Pallone said he has always been interested in foreign affairs and has a master’s degree in international relations from Tufts University.
Obtaining aid for Armenia and Karabagh is perhaps the most difficult task of the Armenian Caucus. Pallone said, “It is always hard to get support for anything involving a dollar amount. You have to take it away from something or somebody else. There are many members [of Congress] who don’t want to advocate adding money for anything.”
Though the Armenian Caucus succeeded in obtaining much aid for Armenia and Karabagh over the years, the actual amount of aid has annually been decreasing recently. This is, of course, in part due to the general trend of reducing US expenditures on foreign relations and the decreased sense of urgency as time has passed from the period of the Armenian earthquake, fighting in Karabagh, and the struggles for Armenian independence. In addition to this, the State Department always tries to reduce aid to Armenia and Karabagh, and Congress then chooses to increase it to a certain degree. Pallone does not feel that this is done as part of a ritual. He exclaimed, “No, I don’t buy that. The State Department does not prioritize Armenia. Its effort is to give less than what Congress does. It does not think that Congress will put money back [each time].”
The State Department also does not spend all the money allocated for the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh [NKR] annually. Pallone explained that although money can be appropriated for a specific purpose by Congress, Congress cannot necessarily require it to be spent. He said, “It is hard because the State Department does not want to recognize it [NKR]. We have to remind it that this money should be spent for certain purposes.”
On the other hand, the State Department wants to provide military support to Azerbaijan, though the Karabagh issue has not yet been resolved. Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act of 1992 prohibits any type of direct aid to the Azerbaijani government, but since the end of 2001 the US president has been able to apply for an annual waiver and indeed has done so. Pallone felt that considering Azerbaijan’s record of aggression, military buildup and bellicose statements, not to mention the continuing blockade of Armenia, the law can still call attention to this dangerous situation.
As seen above, Congress and the State Department frequently are at odds on issues concerning aid to Armenia, resolutions pertaining to the Armenian Genocide and other Armenian topics. Pallone feels the reason is that “Congress is much more oriented in doing what is right from a human rights and international law point of view, while the State Department is much more realpolitik. They are looking at things from their perceived notion of Turkey being very important from a strategic defense and economic point of view. I dispute that because I don’t think Turkey is as important as the State Department says. It downplays human rights and rule of law.” The only way to change this situation, since the State Department is basically an entrenched bureaucracy, said Pallone, is to have “a president come in and say we don’t do this anymore. However most presidents are not familiar with Armenia and so they tend to defer to the State Department.”
Barring such a radical change, a constant barrage from the Armenian Caucus and Armenian organizations like the Armenian Assembly or the Armenian National Committee can at least serve as a reminder to the administration of what the right thing to do is.
Another issue on which lobbying can be important is the Armenia-Turkey Protocol. Pallone said, “President Obama and the Secretary of State felt this was the way to get Turkey to open its borders and resolve the conflict, settle the NK conflict, promote trade and lift the blockade. They put a lot of eggs in that basket, hoping the protocol would be ratified, but it didn’t happen. They have to be realistic, and now that it didn’t happen — the fault being with the Turkish government since Armenian did all it could to promote the protocol — push Turkey and call it to task. They should demand the recognition of genocide, opening borders, and coming to the table. Turkey can play a major role in convincing Azerbaijan to come to an agreement on NKR.”
The US administration is still, however, talking about the protocols as if they were not defunct. Pallone said, “They are being very unrealistic. … I’ve made the point many times to the administration to forget about the protocols and find another strategy. They took so much pride in it at the time that they are reluctant to admit it is dead.”
Meanwhile, after frequent Congressional attempts over the decades to pass resolutions enjoining recognition of the Armenian Genocide in one form or another, recently a resolution passed the House urging the return of Christian church property in Turkey. Pallone commented: “I do believe that compensation is important. It is not just an issue of recognizing the Genocide but also of paying compensation to the victims and their descendants.” He did not necessarily think that such bills were harder to pass than ones calling for recognition, since the compensation would come from Turkey and not the US, but was not sure that there would be a shift predominantly to this type of Congressional action. He said that “the issue of when to move depends on what we can get the votes for…It is hard to say what makes a resolution passable.”
One of the forces often opposing Armenian interests is the Congressional Caucus on Turkey and Turkish Americans, established in 2001. It has rapidly increased its membership, roughly reaching parity with the Armenian Caucus with 134 members in February. It frequently cooperates with the even younger Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus (founded in 2004), which this March had 45 members. “They have been spending a lot of money, hiring lobbyists. Their efforts have stepped up quite a bit in the last few years. I haven’t seen it causing problems yet for the Armenian Caucus,” Pallone noted.
He did feel that Armenian organizations would be stronger if united. He stressed, “Members of Congress need to hear united voices.” Thus, Pallone attempts to bring groups together and “in cases of rivalry between Armenian organizations I refuse to take sides.” He did not see any significant disagreements between the Diasporan-Armenian organizations and the government of the Republic of Armenia.
The congressman said that there is also room for constructive criticism of Armenia. For example, “one of the values I think is very important is separation of church and state. That is enshrined in our constitution. I often remind Armenian leaders that this is important. … There shouldn’t be a state religion. This is a uniquely American point of view.”
When asked about his opinion on the record of President Obama and the potential Republican presidential candidates for this year’s elections, Pallone on the one hand said, “Obviously I would like him [Obama] to do more — recognize the Genocide, give more aid to Armenia and put more pressure on Turkey to resolve a lot of the problems that we have. I would like to see a settlement of the NKR conflict and the US to play a greater role there.” However, he concluded, “I still think President Obama is more likely to be supportive of Armenia than any of the Republicans. I think he is familiar with Armenia and we have gotten the Administration over the past few years to provide a certain level of funding. I know he does not recognize the Genocide in his annual statement but he comes close to it.”
Pallone said that in the forthcoming congressional elections, Armenian Caucus members have been in certain cases pitted against one another due to redistricting, which will in general lead to new members of Congress. He urged Armenian Americans to become involved early in the process, before the elections, so that new members of Congress will already have some familiarity with Armenian issues and thus be ready to join the Armenian Caucus. They can meet with candidates and members and use the media. Pallone stressed that basically this should be happening at all times, no matter what the specific circumstance: “Many Armenians feel this does not accomplish anything, but if nobody does it, there will be no voice for Armenia. They have to keep it up whether or not they think they are winning or losing at the time. If you don’t keep up, you will lose. It is constant effort. If you are not there, Armenia loses.”
In summing up his philosophy, Pallone said, “I really think that it is important for American foreign policy to continue to stress our values, democracy, rule of law and human rights. To the extent that we do that, it benefits Armenia. Armenia is on the right side. It broke away from the Soviet Union and the Karabagh war resulted from the principle of self-determination of peoples, the right to determine their own fate. Armenia is very conscious of rule of law and it is a democracy. And it has a market economy. I would like our foreign policy to reflect that. When it doesn’t we become less supportive of Armenia.”
uck and the efforts of a particular tenacious Armenian-American that turned the congressman into the staunch defender of Armenians’ rights that he is today. He happened to inherit the office manager of his predecessor, a woman named