To get an idea of the how the U.N. budget works, picture a U.S. Congress that raises nine-tenths of its revenue directly from the six richest state governments. The representatives of the poorer states caucus to draft appropriations that further the political and economic gains of their own constituents. There is no budget ceiling--any program the caucus endorses is enacted. The rich states' representatives vote against the budget, but they pay up. The governments of most small states each pay one or two ten-thousandths of the total bill.
This year, for the first time, instead of simply grumbling about the problem, in the quiet accountants' club that is the General Assembly budget committee, the United States and other major contributors have thrown open the U.N. windows and shouted out that they are mad as hell and they won't take it any more.
Last month, the American, Soviet and British ambassadors marched upstairs to the office of Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and demanded that he put a lid on the current U.N. budget, which covers 1982 and 1983.
THE SECRETARY GENERAL'S original budget estimates were $722 million for this year and $784 million for next, but additional programs mandated by the assembly have increased 1982 costs by $14 million (according to U.N. figures) and are expected to cost an extra $35 million in 1983 (according to U.S. figures).
For the United States, which pays 25 percent of U.N. costs but also receives a huge return in the form of expenditures by foreign diplomats living in New York City, these add-ons (for such things as a conference on Palestinian rights and the planning of vital international transportation links among African states) would cost $3.5 million, in addition to the regular budget assessment of $180.5 million. For the Third World nations, which pay one-hundredth of 1 percent of the U.N. budget, the regular 1982 bill comes to $72,200 each and the add-ons cost $1,400--far less than the price of a diplomatic cocktail party.
Third World countries maintain, however, that they have been reasonable in their budgetary demands and that the crisis has arisen not because they are trying to spend more, but because the big contributors are trying to spend less, for essentially political reasons, on an institution that they no longer can control.
"We have always shown restraint because we are aware that too much spending can kill the goose that lays the golden egg," said one Third World expert on U.N. finances. "The problem is that now that it is no longer their goose, the developed countries do not care if it lives or dies."
The object of the three protesting diplomats -- Jeane J. Kirkpatrick of the United States, Oleg Troyanovsky of the Soviet Union and Sir John Thomson of Britain -- was to demand that these budgetary add-ons be covered by equal reductions in other U.N. spending, to maintain the original budget levels.
They asked Perez de Cuellar to trim costs by acting on an internal report that identified $20 million in "low priority" U.N. activities.
But the U.N. controller announced that his listing of marginal U.N. programs could not be acted on until the 1984-85 budget, which is now being drawn up.
IN POLITICAL TERMS, no U.N. program is marginal because each of them has a powerful bureaucratic or governmental sponsor. Those programs identified as marginal by the original U.N. memo, said controller Dick Foran, have been "upped in priority" since then by various U.N. resolutions, to protect them from the budget ax.
Foran announced instead that the increased foreign exchange rate of the American dollar (in which virtually all U.N. dues are paid) is expected to buy an extra $30.6 million in U.N. services in 1983. This should cover all but about $5 million of the add-ons, which should assuage the big donors -- unless the value of the dollar declines.
Foran suggested that the United States might be more successful in holding future budgets to present spending levels and in devising new mechanisms that would automatically compensate for future add-ons.
The American delegation has gone one step beyond the other major contributors by unilaterally submitting an amendment to each U.N. resolution that calls for additional spending. "In no case," the amendments read, "will the financial obligations incurred by the present resolution exceed the level of resources approved" for the 1982-83 budgets.
American officials say Kirkpatrick was the moving force behind these dramatic gestures.
The first such American motion -- on an esoteric but unarguably useful U.N. conference on treaty law -- left the U.S. voting alone, while 18 other big contributors abstained on the amendment, and 120 nations opposed it.
But the Americans persevered, and a recent vote on this spending lid won 24 backers, who contribute 70 percent of the U.N. budget.
It was this surprise American tactic that prompted the British and Soviet ambassadors to seek a meeting with Kirkpatrick and then go with her to the secretary general.
"We felt we should find out where Perez de Cuellar stood on the issue, rather than bashing in an open door," said a ranking British diplomat, suggesting that the American approach was too extreme.
Those at the meeting reported that the secretary general was responsive, promising to seek out "every possible way to restrain budget growth" but making no specific commitments.