The House of Representatives, defying strong objections from the Bush administration, voted today to cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations in half unless the organization implements a list of reforms.
The House passed the Republican-sponsored bill by a vote of 221 to 184 after rejecting a Democratic version that stopped short of an automatic withholding of U.S. dues payments to the world body.
In approving the United Nations Reform Act, the House ignored administration warnings that the bill would hamstring President Bush's ability to conduct foreign policy, undermine U.S. leadership at the United Nations and actually strengthen the hand of those resisting U.N. reform.
Instead, the majority backed Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the chairman of the House International Relations Committee and author of the bill, who argued that "meaningful U.N. reform" was long overdue and that Congress, through its power of the purse, had a right to step in.
"We have had enough waivers, enough resolutions, enough statements," Hyde said today. "It's time we had some teeth in reform."
In arguing for his bill, Hyde said before the vote, "Over the years, as we listened to the counsels for patience, the U.N.'s failings have grown. . . . The time has finally come where we must in good conscience say, 'enough.' "
However, given White House opposition, the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which currently does not have its own version. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reportedly are working on a U.N. reform bill, and the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), plans to hold a hearing on it next month.
Among other measures, the House bill would require a significant overhaul of the U.N. bureaucracy, the reduction and streamlining of the regular U.N. budget, the establishment of a position of "chief operating officer," the creation of an "Office of Ethics" and increases in internal oversight and auditing. The bill would also require the removal from U.N. human rights bodies of countries that themselves violate human rights, the adoption of an enforceable code of conduct for U.N. peacekeeping troops and the strengthening of the compliance and enforcement mechanisms of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As part of an effort to "redirect" U.S. contributions in the interest of shaping a "streamlined, efficient and accountable regular assessed budget of the United Nations," the bill says, funds would be taken from the U.N. public information program and General Assembly affairs and conference services. The U.N. public information budget would be slashed by 20 percent.
In debate, House members supporting the bill complained about mismanagement and corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program under the government of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. They also cited a scandal involving sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers and what they described as U.N. indulgence of dictatorships, bias in the organization against the United States and Israel and wasteful spending on some programs.
If the United Nations fails to implement more than three dozen reforms, most of them by 2007, the bill would require the United States to withhold half the dues it pays to the U.N. regular budget. The United States currently is assessed 22 percent of the U.N. operating budget, which is estimated at about $2 billion for the next fiscal year.
A Democratic version of the U.N. reform bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), was defeated by a vote of 216 to 190. It would have allowed the State Department to decide whether to withhold U.S. dues instead of making the cuts mandatory.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States will pay about $362 million in U.N. assessments this year from current appropriations. For 2006, the CBO reported, President Bush has asked Congress to appropriate $439 million for U.N. assessed contributions.
If the bill became law, the 50 percent withholding of dues would be triggered unless the secretary of state could certify that certain conditions in the bill had been met. If the mandated cuts took effect, the CBO said, U.S. contributions to the United Nations "would be about $187 million lower in 2007 and about $769 million lower over the 2007-2010 period" compared to expected scheduled payments.