Politics & Policy

The U.S., the U.N., and a $180 Million Debt

The Obama administration refuses to let the United Nations pay us back.

The United Nations’ Tax Equalization Fund (TEF) owes the United States nearly $180 million. Don’t blame the U.N. — the organization reported last summer that it was ready to remit the overpayment. Only one thing has kept it from doing so: The U.S. didn’t ask for the money.

Aside from a few members of Congress and some U.N. experts, hardly anyone gave the situation much attention. That is, until last week, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s “YouCut” website included “Obtain Refund of Funds Owed to the U.S. by the U.N. Tax Equalization Fund” as one of three options to cut government spending. It won the vote.

As a result, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation to seek the return of the funds. But the State Department seems less than enthused by the idea.

Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international-organization affairs, told Congressional Quarterly that “much of that sum — up to $100 million — already has been repurposed to help enhance security at the U.N. complex in New York City.” Left unsaid is that under this proposal, the U.S. would be paying 100 percent of the cost of the security upgrades rather than the 22 percent that the U.S. is paying for the current U.N. renovation project to which the security upgrades are related (the “Capital Master Plan”). As for the rest of the credit, State intends to use it to offset future dues. She also said State had briefed Congress “extensively” on the matter last year.

Nothing in Brimmer’s statements should dissuade Congress from considering Representative Ros-Lehtinen’s legislation. However, the statements should lead Congress to ask some tough questions:

1. Why didn’t State ask for reimbursement of these funds when the U.N. informed the U.S. about them? There seems little reason to leave millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in U.N. coffers for years on end and, needless to say, $179 million would go much farther than $79 million in offsetting America’s dues to the U.N.

2. Who gave the U.N. permission to use the TEF funds for security enhancements? And when did it happen? The funds could not have been “repurposed” without U.S. approval.

3. At what point and with what justification did State deem its consultations with Congress sufficient to make its decision? Congressional staffers characterize the briefings as “cursory” rather than “extensive,” noting that when the decision was made, members had ongoing requests for more information.

4. If the administration wanted to give the U.N. an additional $100 million, why didn’t it make the request through the normal budgetary process? Giving the U.N. permission to use the TEF funds owed to the U.S. for the security enhancements rather than seeking a specific appropriation for that purpose seems to be a deliberate attempt to circumvent congressional authority.

5. Why did State decide to ignore Congress’s expressed intent? Last December, in the FY 2011 Omnibus Appropriation Act – which, to be fair, was not enacted — Congress included two specific references (on pages 1,217 and 1,219) to the TEF money, stating that it “should be used to offset other assessed contributions to the United Nations, subject to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.” Congress clearly wanted the funds reimbursed or otherwise applied toward our U.N. dues — not used for security enhancements at the U.N. building in New York.

6. When was State going to announce its “repurposing” decision? Despite the department’s claims to have briefed lawmakers extensively, Congress clearly was unaware that a decision had been made. Had Congress known, the language used in the “YouCut” proposal would have reflected the current situation.

7. On what legal basis did State make its decision? State has yet to point to the source of its authority to “repurpose” the funds. Does the administration believe it has the power to authorize international organizations to use taxpayer dollars for purposes different from those authorized by Congress?

With appallingly little transparency and precious little consultation with Congress, the Obama administration decided to let the U.N. use $100 million in taxpayer dollars without going through the normal budgetary process. If Congress wishes to retain the power of the purse, it should take a very close look at this and demand answers. If the administration fails to cooperate, Congress should subpoena communications between State and the U.N. on this matter and request an audit by the Government Accountability Office on the proposed security enhancements in New York and past U.N. practices in funding security upgrades in other countries.  

— Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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