U.N. Envoy Richardson Lobbies Ex-Colleagues
By John M. Goshko
In a two-day foray that old friends on Capitol Hill dubbed "Ambassador Bluto goes to Washington," the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, last week took command of the Clinton administration's campaign to induce Congress to pay roughly $1 billion that the United States owes to the world body.
The U.S. arrearages for back dues and peacekeeping assessments have brought the United Nations to the brink of bankruptcy. To prevent that, the administration faces the daunting task of overcoming the hostility of the Republican conservatives who control Congress and who regard the United Nations as a bloated, inefficient organization that wastes too much money and espouses causes contrary to U.S. interests.
To the forefront of that effort has come Richardson, who last month succeeded Madeleine K. Albright at the United Nations after she became secretary of state. Richardson previously had spent almost 14 years as a Democratic member of the House from New Mexico. Burly, blue-jawed and perpetually rumpled, he was known affectionately to colleagues on both sides of the aisle as "Bluto," after the hulking villain with bulging muscles and beard who duked it out with Popeye in cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s.
In testimony Wednesday and Thursday before the House and Senate and in a private meeting with key congressional leaders, Richardson sought to exploit this old-school tie to win a friendly reception for his message.
Under new Secretary General Kofi Annan, he argued, the United Nations is moving toward the reforms that congressional critics insist are necessary to transform the organization into one they can support. And, he added, if Congress reciprocates by paying debts that have drawn harsh criticism from the other 184 member states, he will be able to negotiate a substantial reduction in the U.N. assessment scales that call for the United States to pay 25 percent of the world body's annual budget and 31 percent of its peacekeeping costs.
"If I get some bucks from Congress, I'll have the leverage to lower the scales before the end of the year," he promised in reference to the U.S. goals of reducing Washington's share of peacekeeping costs to a maximum of 25 percent and its share of the U.N. budget to about 20 percent.
But, while he got a jocular, backslapping reception, Richardson was put on notice that convincing Congress is going to require that he spend a lot of time on the New York-Washington shuttle. When he hailed a series of personnel and cost-cutting reforms unveiled by Annan earlier in the week, the critics replied that many of the initiatives sounded suspiciously like a repackaging of ideas that the United Nations had announced a year ago.
"I'm not as sure as you how new and how real some of these changes really are," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that deals with U.N. funding.
Rogers also drew a bead on the idea that is the linchpin of the administration's plan for clearing up the U.S. debt. It would have Congress appropriate $1 billion, but pay only $100 million initially and withhold the other $900 million for a year or more. It would be disbursed then if Congress and the administration feel the United Nations has made progress toward reform.
"Mr. Ambassador, the quicker we get off this advance appropriations topic, the quicker we can save time. It's just not going to happen," Rogers said, summarizing the current attitude among congressional Republicans.
That perhaps accounted for the Freudian slip that saw Richardson repeatedly address Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, as "Mr. Chairman." When the embarrassed Mollohan finally reminded Richardson that he was not the chairman, the ambassador shot back, "I was thinking of the good old days."
In harking back to the time before the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Richardson obviously was thinking that if the Democrats were still in charge, he wouldn't have to worry about coming to terms with the ideas of such harsh U.N. critics as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms has proposed that Congress legislate a series of benchmarks, setting out specific reforms it wants made and disbursing U.S. payments only if and when these goals are met.
When Richardson and Albright met with congressional leaders Wednesday night, Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.), a Helms ally, sketched the kind of benchmarks that many Republicans have in mind.
As described by various congressional sources, they would authorize payment of the arrearages over several years if the United Nations reduces the U.S. budget and peacekeeping assessments to the levels sought by Washington, agrees that the U.S. payments wipe out the total U.S. debt and reimburses the United States fully for all personnel, services, supplies and facilities it provides the organization.
The sources said that other proposed benchmarks would require the U.N. secretariat and the various specialized agencies within the U.N. system to make major budget, financial and personnel changes whose net effect would be to trim substantially the amount of money the United Nations spends and the number of people it employs.
And, addressing fears of many conservatives about the United Nations encroaching on U.S. sovereignty, another benchmark would require assurances that the United Nations would not engage in activities normally reserved for sovereign states, such as maintaining a standing army or engaging in taxation through such devices as fees on international stock transfers or the sale of airline tickets.
While some of these ideas dovetail with the reform proposals put forward by the administration, in many areas they go far beyond what the administration believes the other U.N. members will approve. Then there is the highly controversial issue of how much the United States should pay.
Congress contends that the U.S. debt is not $1.3 billion but closer to $825 million because two years ago, it passed a law limiting any U.S. payments to 25 percent of total U.N. costs. Congressional leaders say this is not negotiable, but the administration advocates flexibility in dealing with the sizable, disputed amount.
The Wednesday meeting ended with a decision to have staffers tackle the areas of disagreement during the upcoming two-week congressional recess, with Richardson, Albright and congressional leaders getting together again in about a month. Given the considerable gulf that exists, it probably won't be the last such meeting. But Richardson did come away with a glimmer of hope.
"I hope that by mid April we'll have some sort of agreed position between the administration and Congress on the arrearage issue of how much we'll pay," Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), another tough critic of the United Nations, told him.
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