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Anti-UN Campaign Begins in the House

February 7, 2011

This week, the House may vote on what could be the first of many anti-UN bills to be brought forward in the 112th Congress. The House is expected to consider a bill (yet to be introduced and therefore unnamed), introduced by Representative Ros-Lehtinen (FL), to force the UN to return a small amount of money that the US overpaid to the UN. FCNL opposes this bill and is encouraging letters to House members urging them to vote against it.

The bill concerns the UN’s “Tax Equalization Fund,” a fund that evens out the salaries of American UN employees who live in-country and therefore pay income taxes that their foreign counterparts do not. Because of discrepancies in US and UN calculations, $179 million in overpayments by the US has accumulated in this fund (Over the years since this fund was established in 1946, there have been both over and undercharges due to shifts in UN employment and changes in tax laws). However, forcing repayment by the UN would not be wise or even practical.

For one thing the bill is deceptive, since it implies that the accumulated funds are in the form of a lump sum of cash that can simply be returned to US coffers. Actually, the funding is in the form of credits that cannot be literally refunded. Furthermore, the State Department explained the accumulated funds and how they would be applied thoroughly to Congress last year, reporting that part of this sum has been repurposed for security at the UN headquarters complex in New York City, while the remainder would be used to offset future dues payments. In other words, the extra funds will be put toward US interests at the UN. Trying to force repayment would only hurt the US and US-UN relations.  The legislation also implies that the UN has somehow behaved deceptively by retaining these funds.  Actually, the existence of these credits was publicly reported many times by the UN, and explained to Congress repeatedly in hearing testimony.  The UN did not decide to repurpose the credits on its own, but in fact asked both the Bush and Obama administrations to specific how they should be used.  The decision to use the credits for security upgrades at the UN headquarters, at the request of the New York Police Department, and to use the remainder to offset future dues payments, was made by the Obama administration itself.

Another problem is that the legislation makes it seem as though these funds would make up a considerable savings for the U.S. In reality, the $179 million in overpayments doesn’t even constitute a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 billion that Republicans promised to cut out of the fiscal year 2011 federal budget, for example. What opponents of the UN don’t recognize is that the UN is not actually a drain on the federal budget, since it ultimately saves us money. UN peacekeeping is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent conflict, maintain peace and rebuild post-conflict societies. A report by the Government Accountability Office found for example that having the UN run the mission in Haiti was eight times less expensive than it would be for the United States to pay for it alone. Similarly, the UN pays the same amount to fund all of its current 17 missions for an entire year as the US spends to wage one month of war in Iraq.

What this bill appears to be about more than anything is political grandstanding against the UN. The bill is being brought to the floor not because it represents the most important business the House needs to address at the start of the 112th Congress, but because it won an online competition through a website set up by House Majority Leader Representative Cantor (VA) called You Cut, where anyone can vote, American Idol-style, on spending cuts for the House to enact. Interactive democracy is great, but this kind of superficial engagement makes a mockery of the serious deliberative work that the people of the US have entrusted to the House in setting the federal budget each year. The site deliberately fudges the reality of this bill, by saying that “by instructing the UN to return those funds to the US we can generate savings for American taxpayers.”

As silly as this bill sounds, it represents the beginning of a real threat to US funding for the UN this year. In addition to these types of bills designed to rev up anti-UN sentiment, we expect Representative Ros-Lehtinen to re-introduce legislation that would make US payments to the UN conditional upon her own unreasonable UN “reform agenda”, essentially setting the US up to go back into arrears on dues to the UN.

Along with other like-minded organizations in DC, FCNL will lobby hard this year to head off these anti-UN bills. We will continue to urge Congress to pay US dues to the UN, on time and in full, and to engage constructively with the UN and the international community.  You can take action too: write to your representative and urge her or him to oppose UN funding cuts.

For more background on the anti-UN agenda in the House, click here.

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