The new Republican majority in the House is poised to revive some old battles over the U.S. government’s financial contribution to the United Nations, vowing once again to use the power of America’s purse to force what it calls needed reforms at the world body.
New House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told The Washington Times that she plans to use the threat to withhold U.S. dues payments to force U.N. officials to cut costs and clean up the organization’s image, a sharp break from the approach and political rhetoric used when Democrats ran the House.
“The majority of our members are on board to reform the corrupt and mismanaged U.N. and get a much better return for our dollars,” the Florida Republican said in an interview. “Cutting the budget is not enough, because you need to reform the monster, you need to reform the beast, and if you don’t get fundamental reform, you are still rewarding a corrupt, mismanaged agency.”
Before the Obama administration came to power, the issue of U.S. “arrears” to the U.N. was a long-running battle on Capitol Hill and a diplomatic sore spot for the State Department, which argued the U.S. failure to pay its dues undercut other foreign-policy goals.
One early sign of Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen’s seriousness: The first scheduled hearing of her committee was titled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems That Need Congressional Action.” Originally set for Jan. 12, the hearing was postponed last week after the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., and now is slated for Jan. 25.
Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, who surrendered the committee gavel to Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, said he shares some of the concerns about the U.N., but warned that tying U.S. dues directly to reforms undermines the U.N.’s positive work and would end up costing the American taxpayer more money.
“That would be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Mr. Berman told The Times.
He said that “the whole international relations budget is at risk and is going to face some cuts unless people understand that — whether it’s the U.N. or our foreign-assistance programs or the strength of our diplomatic corps — this fundamentally undermines U.S. national-security interests and U.S. foreign-policy interests.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee doesn’t have final say over how much money is spent, but the panel provides the Appropriations Committee with a policy blueprint for foreign-affairs spending.
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen called the new Republican head of the key Appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, a “willing partner.”
The Florida lawmaker said she plans to introduce legislation next month to strengthen oversight and reform of U.N. agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), while cutting funding for the Human Rights Council, which critics say has exhibited an anti-Israel bias and includes countries that violate the rights they vow to protect.
The bill also will call for all contributions to the international body to be voluntary, she said.
“We’ve approached this [in the past] with no strings attached, and we pay every cent of the contributions that the U.N. assesses us,” she said. “Then the de facto policy becomes, ‘Money now, reform never.’ So we have to ask ourselves: What are we getting from the U.N. in return?”
While it is too early to tell whether Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts will be successful — and its chances in the Democrat-led Senate and with the Obama White House are much weaker — the push highlights an enduring divide over the usefulness of the U.N. and whether Congress should pay its dues without any quid pro quo. The U.S. pays about 22 percent of the total U.N. budget.
Critics say the credibility of the 192-nation body is shot, marred by scandals such as the Iraq oil-for-food program and accusations of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa.
All U.S. contributions to the U.N., they say, should be voluntary — rather than the mandatory dues the U.N. charges its member states and then disburses itself — and tied to performance of the agency or program in question.
“I think it is a better way to fund the U.N. system in general,” said Brett D. Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. “When you take a look at the U.N. system, the organizations that are voluntarily funded tend to be a lot more responsive to the member-states, and so when we have a criticism or question about what they are doing, we are able to get a much more cooperative response.”
U.N. agencies funded by voluntary member contributions include the World Food Program and UNICEF.
Mr. Schaefer said the new Republican majority in the House could return the Congress to its proper role as the “bad cop to our diplomatic good cop.”
“When you take a look at Congress over the last several years, you really haven’t seen any kind of interest in taking up U.N. reform legislation,” he said. “The Congress, both the Senate and House, have only conducted a handful of oversight hearings.”
The U.S. government in recent years, he added, has “really neglected its oversight role, and I think that has been unfortunate for the United States, because we want to make sure that not only our tax dollars are used effectively at the U.N., but that our concerns are going to be given the amount of hearing that they should receive.”
But many Democrats say that the Obama administration has been smart to put an end to the dues controversy, softening its rhetoric while urging the U.N. to prove that it can fulfill the missions the world has delegated to it.
Mr. Berman and private U.N. defenders tout the role the agency has played in relief efforts such as Haiti, where more than 10,000 peacekeepers are on the ground. U.N. monitors also helped oversee recent elections in Afghanistan and Sudan, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates cited the agency’s help in coordinating international pressure against Iran’s nuclear program.
“That is a pretty important trifecta in terms of America’s interest — and the U.N. is on the front lines,” said Peter Yeo of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Campaign.
Mr. Yeo contended that in the last six years, the U.N. has made “real and meaningful reforms” in its peacekeeping missions and that a decrease in funding would undermine those efforts and have real consequences for people on the ground in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous places.
“What will happen is, fewer kids will get vaccinated, fewer people in the developing world … will be fed, and there will be fewer efforts to promote democracy and human rights,” he said.