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Who Will Help Greece? Not the Congressional Greek Caucus!

When the Greek debt crisis became major international news last month, I decided to set out and find some U.S. representatives who might have something to say about the situation. I thought it was curious that none had really spoken out about Greece’s plight, particularly given that the nation is facing one of its most critical moments since the Ottomans. I knew there were congressmen of Greek descent—Gus Bilirakis and John Sarbanes, whose middle name is Spyros, came to mind—and that there was a large enough Greek community in the United States that others would be paying attention. Some quick googling even revealed a Congressional Hellenic Caucus, a group that boasted an impressive 137 members (compared to only 60 in the Tea Party Caucus). 

Obviously, I wasn’t expecting anyone to propose a Homeric plan for the U.S. to bail out Greece. That’s the duty of Europe. But I had imagined that, with all the apparent Hellenophiles in Congress, at least a few would be making noise or attempting to apply pressure on international institutions to bail out the beleaguered country. As it turned out, however, with all the focus in Washington on our own country’s messy fiscal balance sheets, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to engage with the idea that their beloved Hellenic Republic (Greece’s official name) was deserving of special treatment. 

In my initial research, I stumbled upon the Congressional Hellenic Caucus’s July 2010 Report on Hellenic Issues, posted on the website of co-chair and co-founder Representative Carolyn Maloney. The document spoke of the Caucus’s goal of working “to foster and improve relations between the United States and Greece”—an admirable agenda that seemed to lend itself to doing something in the country’s more dire moment of need. But my hopes sagged as I looked through the report. “U.S. aid to Greece” was listed as one of the caucus’s topics of interest, but few of its official actions were even remotely related to economic policy. Instead, a number of resolutions like H. Res 486 (“Expresses the sense of Congress that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia should work with the United Nations and Greece to achieve longstanding United States and United Nations policy goals of finding a mutually-accepted name for FYROM”) and H. Res 325 (“Honoring the spiritual leadership of Archbishop Iakovos to Greek Orthodox Christians in the Western Hemisphere”), populated the report. Most recently, Maloney took the time last week to commemorate the 37th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, invoking her role as chair of the caucus but avoiding any mention of the Greek economy.

To be fair, Maloney (who is also a member of the joint congressional economic committee) did call in February for a probe of American financial firms’ involvement in Greece’s crisis. But the caucus itself had remained remarkably silent on the issue, so I decided a few phone calls might stir the Hellenic fellow-feelings of its members and reveal what they were really up to. 

The first person I got in touch with was caucus co-chair Bilirakis’s press secretary, who responded with a public statement on behalf of the Tea Party representative that—perhaps unsurprisingly—offered no solutions for Greece but took an implied shot at the Obama administration. Bilirakis opened by calling the events “heartbreaking,” but his Tea Party affinity soon overcame his Greek roots. “I am pleased Greece took the right course of action and passed austerity measures, but the situation in Greece should serve as a wakeup call to all nations, including the U.S.,” he continued, presumably in reference to the looming August 2 debt ceiling deal deadline. “Sadly, we could be in the same predicament very soon if we don’t get our own financial house in order. That’s why I’m pushing for a balanced budget amendment and dramatically lower spending. Governments live within their means, period.”

Bilirakis’s statement didn’t seem particularly helpful to Greece, but he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the caucus at large. When Representative Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, called to give me his take, I figured I’d have better luck. Sarbanes, to his credit, suggested that the IMF should take a leading role in helping Greece, with the U.S. working behind the scenes through that institution. “I think you can view that as representing a United States commitment to seeing Greece through these difficult times,” he explained. “[T]he most important factor here is believing that this can be solved,” he added, avoiding any specific policy recommendations.

As for divining the sentiments of the Hellenic Caucus itself, I had even worse luck. Bilirakis’s press secretary did not respond to my follow-up email, while Maloney’s office told me she didn’t want to talk to me about the debt crisis with regards to the Caucus. All told, the Caucus, with its 137 representatives pledged to help U.S.-Greek relations, didn’t offer up any suggestions for fixing the current Greek debt crisis, and has no public plans for doing so.

I did at last, however, stumble upon H.Res 1337: “To support efforts by the Department of State to strengthen the bilateral relationship with Greece,” a seemingly innocuous resolution introduced in April by caucus member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen with 11 cosponsors, including Maloney and Bilirakis. Buried in the text is a plea to strengthen the two countries’s economic relations, an important if vague goal in a time of need for struggling Hellas. But, alas, the resolution, which seemed to speak to the Caucus’s hesitant push to provide help to Greece, was referred to committee. And it hasn’t gone anywhere since.

Gabriel Debenedetti is an intern at The New Republic.