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Political Economy
Posted at 03:41 PM ET, 08/03/2011

Will the U.S. become another Old Poland?

Crushing debt. Unwillingness to raise taxes. Weakened military spending.

If any of the above makes you think of Washington’s debt stalemate and and the defense cuts likely to follow, you’re right. But you’re doubly right if you also recall what historians refer to as “Old” Poland.

Old Poland doesn’t exist anymore. It fell off the map after suffering three partitions — in 1772, 1793 and 1795 -- when neighboring Prussia, Austria and Russia helped themselves to more and more of the country’s land until nothing remained.

Historians attribute a variety of factors to the country’s demise. But one phrase helps put a fine point on it all: “Nie pozwalam!” That’s Polish for “I forbid!”

You see, Old Poland’s Senate, or Sejm, was so fractious and partisan that nothing of import could get past the body of 200 or so nobles because of this one phrase.

“All you had to do was stand up and say, ‘nie pozwalam!’ and not only did the bill under consideration not pass, but also every piece of legislation adopted at that point” during the session, explained Mieczyslaw B. Biskupski, professor of Polish history at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.

As a bonus, the “nie pozwalam!” also dissolved the Sejm and let the lawmakers go home.

In other words, this was a legislature that would have a hard time agreeing whether to order kielbasa or pierogies for lunch -- let alone whether to tax rich landowners or beef up the military.

Yet that’s precisely what was being asked of the Sejm. Torn by decades of invasions and insurrections, Old Poland was heavily indebted and needed to raise taxes or have its paltry army go unpaid. But when the body tried to adopt such measures, some noble would inevitably say, “nie pozwalam!” The gridlock in the Sejm kept building, the military kept shrinking, and debts kept piling up, until the country weakened so much that its neighbors noticed and pounced at the opportunity.

Since the United States almost fell into default because of congressional gridlock over similar issues of debt and taxation, some historians are seeing not-so-comfortable parallels between the two countries’ legislative bodies.

“I think the last few weeks have gotten a lot of people wondering about the structure of our system, whether it can really handle the issues we’ve got,” said Neal Pease, chairman of the department of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“People have to think more seriously in the future about, well, the good of the whole, as opposed to getting one political view to prevail,” he said. “Poland clearly crossed that line.”

The United States is close to crossing that line in its own Senate, warned Susanne Lotarski, president of the Washington Metropolitan Area Division of the Polish American Congress in Chevy Chase, Md. She said that the body’s 60-vote requirement for passage of legislation resembles Old Poland’s “nie pozwalam!”-- an anti-democratic rule that prevents important business from getting done.

For the record, Old Poland abolished the infamous phrase in a 1791 constitution (which passed the Sejm only because the faction of senators who opposed it were out to caucus).

But by then it was, as Poles would say, “musztarda po obiedzie,” the “mustard after dinner” that comes too late to do you any good. Despite some Poles’ heroic attempts to keep their independence, the invaders won out, and Poland disappeared for 123 years.

Of course, things didn’t have to end that way.

“The nobles who controlled the taxes could have been more generous in how much they paid,” said Central Connecticut State’s Biskupski. That is, they could have put their country ahead of their own politics.

By Cezary Podkul  |  03:41 PM ET, 08/03/2011

 
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