House Republicans Want U.N. to Send Back Millions in Overpaid U.S. Contributions

By Patrick Goodenough | February 9, 2011 | 4:52 AM EST

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(Update: The U.N. bill was voted down Wednesday by a 259-169 vote. Had it been introduced under House rules requiring a simple majority it would have passed. But since it was brought to the floor under suspension of rules it needed a two-thirds majority – 290 votes – to pass. Two New York Republicans, Reps. Peter King and Mike Grimm, voted against the motion; Twenty-three Democrats voted for it.)

( – The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives kicks off its campaign to seek accountability in the United Nations on Wednesday. Lawmakers plan to vote on a bill aimed at securing the return of $179 million that was overpaid into a U.N. tax fund.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, requires the administration to ask for the money back.

Until the administration certifies that the full sum has been returned, the bill requires that the U.S. withhold an equivalent amount from its contribution to the regular U.N. budget.

The surplus amount had been paid by the U.S. over several years into the U.N.’s Tax Equalization Fund (TEF), which reimburses those U.N. staff members who have to pay national income tax on their U.N. earnings.

The reimbursement aims to create pay parity between employees from the U.S. and other countries that levy taxes on income from international organizations, and the majority which do not.

The U.S. in turn contributes to the TEF, but as of the end of 2009 the fund was holding $179,010,326 in overpaid U.S. funds. A U.N. financial report released last July confirmed that the money was “payable to the United States of America pending instructions as to its disposition.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pictured during a briefing on Iran with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, on March 25, 2010. (Photo: Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans)

This is the money that Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues seek to have returned by the U.N. as a one-time savings.

“Allowing the United Nations to regularly overcharge the United States and to retain those overpayments, or to spend them on wholly unrelated activities, is a disservice to American taxpayers and a subversion of the Congressional budget process,” her bill states.

Apart from requiring the amount to be returned, the measure requires the U.S. to press the U.N. to reform the TEF process to reduce discrepancies between income and expenditures, and to instruct the U.N. each year to return to the U.S. any surplus funds in the TEF.

Wednesday’s vote is taking place under the Republican leadership’s YouCut project, which invites Americans to submit proposals for spending cuts they would like to see the House enact. Each week’s winning submission will be put before the full House for an up-or-down vote.

On the YouCut Web site, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said of the bill: “It appears that the U.N. is still holding the U.S. funds because the Administration has not instructed the U.N. on how it wishes to dispose of them. By instructing the U.N. to return those funds to the U.S. we can generate savings for American taxpayers.”

Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2009, the day the U.S. took its seat on the body for the first time. (U.N. Photo by Gilles Sereni)

However, Congressional Quarterly quoted Esther Brimmer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations, as saying that up to $100 million of the $179 million had already been directed to help improve security at the U.N. headquarters in New York City.

The aging complex currently is undergoing an upgrade under a $1.9 billion Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is scheduled for completion in 2014.

The U.S. has contributed more than $250 million towards the CMP since 2007, according to the Congressional Research Service. The administration’s FY2011 request for the CMP is a further $75.5 million.

After the Republicans won control of the House last November, Ros-Lehtinen pledged to focus a spotlight on the U.N., saying that she wanted to use “U.S. contributions to international organizations as leverage to press for real reform of those organizations.”

In earlier Congresses, she introduced ultimately unsuccesful legislation that sought to make U.S. funding conditional on reforms throughout the U.N. system.

The U.S. accounts for 22 percent ($516.3 million in 2011) of the U.N.’s regular operating budget, and more than 25 percent ($2.18 billion) of the peacekeeping budget. Contributions are assessed according to member states’ national economic output.

The Obama administration has made engagement with the U.N. a priority, and announced last September that it had cleared hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears to the U.N. which had accumulated between 2005 and 2008.

In a recent speech, Brimmer took aim at critics of the administration’s approach.

“This administration takes seriously our obligation to guard taxpayer dollars,” she said at the Brookings Institution last Tuesday. “We are second to none in pushing for a more efficient and effective U.N.”

“But gutting our assessments isn’t ‘UN reform.’ It’s just paying less. And trying to avoid paying our bills hurts our ability to deliver results at the U.N. that the American people want, and that the United States needs,” Brimmer said.

“The United States must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills and working for real renewal at the U.N.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow