(CNSNews.com) – A U.S. House committee Thursday approved a bill linking U.S. contributions to the United Nations to significant financial and other reforms, one day after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned she would recommend that President Obama veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
Deeply divided along party lines, the House Foreign Relations Committee voted 23-15 for the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act (H.R. 2829), whose most radical provision aims to force the U.N. to change its funding mechanism from the current system of “assessed” contributions to voluntary ones.
Proponents say this would allow the U.S. – and other member states – to fund only those activities and agencies it regards as being efficiently managed, and in the national interest.
In order to compel the U.N. to make the shift, the legislation would withhold 50 percent of the U.S. assessed contributions to the regular budget (which does not include peacekeeping) if the U.N. has not moved at least 80 percent of the budget to voluntary funding within two years.
American taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 27 percent of the separate peacekeeping budget in “assessed” dues. In addition the U.S. provides billions of dollars in voluntary contributions for various U.N. agencies. In FY 2010 the total U.S. contribution was $7.69 billion.
Conservatives critical of the U.N. have long advocated the U.S. using its leverage, as the biggest funder by far, to push the world body to reform – and to weaken efforts by hostile member-states to use the U.N. to harm American interests.
The bill’s author, committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), told Thursday’s markup hearing that the U.N. budget continues to climb.
“What are we paying for?” she asked, then cited repressive regimes’ membership on the Human Rights Council, a continuing anti-Israel bias, the elevation of member states like North Korea and Iran to leadership positions in various bodies, and corruption scandals.
“Why do we bear the financial burden for this?” Ros-Lehtinen continued. “Every year, scores of member countries that contribute almost nothing to the U.N. vote together to pass the budget. Then they pass the costs on to big donors like the U.S., which is assessed a whopping 22 percent.
“In contrast, China pays just three percent. We need a game-changer.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman, said the “real agenda” behind the bill was to end U.S. participation in the U.N. and to “deal a fatal financial blow to the world body.”
He argued that there was no evidence to support the notion that withholding dues can leverage meaningful change.
“Previous attempts at withholding did not lead to any significant and lasting reforms – they only succeeded in weakening our diplomatic standing and influence, and undermining efforts to promote transparency, fiscal responsibility and good management practices in the U.N. system,” Berman told the committee.
‘A dangerous retreat’
If the bill does pass in the House – where it has 125 co-sponsors, all Republican – its passage through the Democrat-controlled Senate would be an uphill battle. Even if it did make it through the Senate, its chances of making it into law are slim.
In a letter to Ros-Lehtinen on Wednesday, Clinton expressed strong opposition to the measure, saying if it reached the president, she would recommend a veto.
Citing U.N. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples, she argued that international engagement through the U.N. comes at a fraction of the cost of acting alone.
“This bill also represents a dangerous retreat from the longstanding, bipartisan focus of the United States on constructive engagement within the United Nations to galvanize collective action to tackle urgent security problems,” she wrote.
“If we act to diminish our global stature, the United States would surrender a key platform from which to shape international priorities, such as obtaining tough sanctions on Iran.”
During the hearing, Ros-Lehtinen referred to Clinton’s letter, and in particular the suggestion that the legislation could harm U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan because other countries would not share the burden by paying for U.N. missions in those countries.
“Does the administration have such little faith in our allies and in our diplomacy – which they pride themselves on – to think that they would not share the burden of fighting Islamist extremists unless the U.N. forced them to?” she asked.
On the eve the markup hearing, the U.N. Foundation released results of a poll in which 64 percent of respondents said they supported the U.S. “paying our dues to the U.N. on time and in full” while 31 percent said they opposed this.
The poll also found 55 percent of respondents were not in favor of legislation that would cut U.S. funding of the U.N., while 39 percent favored it.
The wording of the question on the proposed legislation said that it “cuts fifty percent of the United States’ funding to the United Nations,” “ends United States’ funding to UNICEF and the World Health Organization” and “ends United States’ funding of United Nations’ agencies that respond and take action after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.”
The poll wording did not say that 50 percent of U.S. funding would only be cut if the U.N. failed to shift from an assessed to voluntary payment mechanism. Neither did the wording make clear that funding to agencies like UNICEF would only end if those agencies fail to provide the U.S. Comptroller General with a certificate of transparency, or to comply with that certification.
The U.N. Foundation was set up in 1998 with a $1 billion donation to U.N. causes by CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner. Its priorities include building public support for the U.N. and advocating U.S. funding for the U.N.
“At a time when the United Nations is more relevant than ever in addressing the world’s greatest peace and security challenges, this survey is evidence that voters believe in the value of the United Nations to American interests,” U.N. Foundation president Timothy Wirth said in a statement on the poll.