President Trump announced yesterday that he plans to halt U.S. taxpayer funding for the World Health Organization. Our recent editorial laid out chapter and verse on how appallingly the WHO has performed in connection with the pandemic. It continues to be China’s cat’s paw, peddling Beijing’s propaganda and helping obfuscate its culpability. But even agreeing, as I do, that our government should cut off the WHO, does the president have the power to do it?
The question presses because the United States is the top financial backer of the WHO. No other country is close. The WHO’s budget is about $6 billion per annum, and the American contribution is over $400 million — about ten times China’s contribution, as the president has pointed out. Democrats are gearing up to fight Trump on the plan to halt WHO funding, and they will get help from the usual array of moneyed progressives (Bill Gates is already raising alarms) and the self-regarding “international community” . . . not least the WHO itself. There will be lawsuits challenging the president — bank on it.
Which, naturally, raises the question: Is it legal for the president to do this? Probably so, but it’s tricky.
The simplest route is to repurpose the congressionally authorized funding. We’ll have to see what the budgeting fine print says, but as we noted when the president reprogrammed some Defense Department funding for the purpose of border-wall construction, presidents often have wiggle to move appropriated money around. This is especially so when there is a national emergency. Recall that there are many emergency provisions in federal law, some going back decades, through which Congress has given the president spending discretion. Recall in addition that President Trump has already invoked Stafford Act emergency provisions in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’d wager that the surest way to cut off the WHO and make it stick is to shift the appropriated WHO funding to COVID-19 relief for the states. They are stressed by the outbreak and pleading for more federal dollars. For all the bellowing Democrats are doing today about the prospect of cutting off the WHO, they’d have a hard time protesting additional funding for their states and districts. Indeed, even now, many Democrats are being careful not to defend the WHO; rather, they suggest that Trump is blame-shifting and attempting to scapegoat the WHO for his own failings.
The other route, a formal rescission of funding is more difficult.
Under federal budgetary law, the president may temporarily halt the funding and send a rescission message to Congress, asking for the appropriated funding to be rescinded, explaining why, and describing the impact doing so. Congress would then have 45 days to act on the request, which can be fast-tracked (i.e., the usual parliamentary rules that slow or prevent action are not applicable). If Congress failed to act, the president would be required to spend the funding as Congress has directed.
Congress could also draft its own rescission legislation, also on a fast track. But note that for any action on Capitol Hill, it would be necessary for lawmakers both to be physically present (since the push for remote voting has stalled) and to come to some consensus. Neither of these is a sure thing at the moment, to say the least.