Politics & Policy

How Much Does the U.N. Cost Us?

The OMB should be permanently involved in assessing the cost of the United Nations.

Most everyone knows the United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations and its affiliated funds, programs, and specialized agencies. But nailing down precisely how much we pay into the U.N. system every year is no easy task. 

Although most U.S. contributions come from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, hundreds of millions of dollars also flow into the U.N. system from other parts of the federal government. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides funding to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Department of Energy gives money to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services supports the World Health Organization. 

Given the complexity of the funding flow, no definitive tally of total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system was available prior to 2006. Until then, estimates relied on incomplete State Department data.

#ad#That changed when Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) asked former OMB director Rob Portman for a comprehensive report on total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system for fiscal years 2001 through 2005. Because OMB is in charge of overseeing the preparation of the president’s budget, it was in a position to require all parts of the U.S. government to report the requested information.

The first report was an eye-opener. The OMB calculated that U.S. contributions totaled $4.115 billion in 2004 and $5.327 billion in 2005. The State Department had estimated 2004 contributions at “well over $3 billion” — only about 75 percent of the actual amount. 

For the next two years, Congress required the State Department to compile the report. But State implausibly reported that the U.S. had reduced its U.N. contributions in FY 2006 and, again, in FY 2007.

In response, Congress tasked OMB to compile the report. According to OMB, FY 2010 marked the third consecutive year in which U.S. contributions reached record highs. In FY 2010, they exceeded $7.691 billion — more than $1.3 billion higher than FY 2009’s record of $6.347 billion.

If you’re wondering how much we contributed last year, good luck. Congress neglected to renew the reporting requirement. I’ve spoken to Obama-administration officials, and they say they’ve prepared the data in anticipation of producing the report, but OMB will not issue the report without a Congressional mandate. 

Congress appears set to address this in the imminent Continuing Resolution on government funding. The Senate report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill includes a requirement that the administration “post the United States assessed contributions under this heading to the United Nations and its affiliated agencies . . . in a timely manner, and the first such posting should include funding detail for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.” But there is a problem. The direction is for the secretary of state to prepare the report so, once again, Congress could get incomplete information. 

Congress should renew this important reporting requirement, but doing so in annual appropriations bills is not enough. Lawmakers should make the OMB reporting requirement permanent.

— Brett D. 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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