The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is now in the congressional spotlight. The amendment authored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) shone a spotlight on UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian “refugees” to include those who are generations removed from the events of 1948-49 and/or those living in the West Bank and Gaza. But that is not the only aspect of UNRWA now under microscope.

The U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011 included provisions to deal with longstanding concerns about UNRWA’s use of anti-Israel textbooks, anti-Israel rhetoric, association with Hamas members and employment of some 31,000 “refugees” (“presenting a clear conflict of interest”).

But a new issue is taking center stage. As Right Turn reported:

Early last year it set up a D.C. “liaison” office. With whom is it liaisoning? Mostly Congress, it turns out. U.S. law forbids the United Nations from lobbying Congress, but as we learned with Newt Gingrich “lobbying” or a “lobbyist” is in the eye of the beholder. UNRWA employs two full-time staffers in D.C., both of whom have loads of experience on Capitol Hill. Chris McGrath is a former aide for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.); his boss, Matthew Reynolds, worked in legislative affairs for the State Department. I was assured no “lobbying” goes on, but they do meet virtually nonstop with lawmakers — appropriators are key — to answer questions about how taxpayer dollars are spent, why UNRWA’s work is important and how it makes sure money isn’t going to terrorists.

It seems American tax dollars are going, in part, to fund this office that in effect makes sure Congress doesn’t get fed up and cut off the money flow.

The law at issue, which deals with lobbying with appropriated moneys, reads in part:

No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation, whether before or after the introduction of any bill, measure, or resolution proposing such legislation, law, ratification, policy,or appropriation. . . .

Because that language is exceptionally broad by necessity, “officers or employees of the United States or of its departments or agencies” who must communicate with Congress are exempted. There is no exemption for the United Nations or its agencies.

On Feb. 1, 2011 the United Nations released the “Report of the Secretary-General on strengthening the management capacity of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.” It contained this :

Given the persistence of the Agency’s financial difficulties, the Commissioner-General gives high priority to efforts to sustain and increase the support of traditional donors, to further expand income from non-traditional donors and to enhance income through partnerships with public and private entities. A key means towards achieving these objectives, particularly during a time of heightened funding needs, is the strengthening of UNRWA resource mobilization and advocacy capacities. . . . [P]lanned measures to enhance the Agency’s impact include strengthening of the existing Brussels Representative Office and establishment of a small office in Washington, D.C., to be headed at the P-5 level, to manage relations with the Government of the United States, the Agency’s largest bilateral donor.

As UNRWA’s D.C. office acknowledged to me, the lion’s share of the office time is spent “liaisoning” with Congress. How is this anything but attempting to “influence in any manner a Member of Congress”?

UNRWA’s critics are on the case. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies wrote:

In recent years, politicians and policy wonks, including one former UNRWA administrator, have called for UNRWA reform. The agency hasn’t merely demurred; it has girded for battle. UNRWA set up shop in Washington with two Hill-savvy professionals, despite the fact that its operations are entirely based in the Middle East, anticipating the need for what looks a full-scale lobby effort to defend its mission. The agency even toyed with changing its name last year in an attempt to burnish its image in the West.

In multiple conversations with those on the Hill familiar with UNRWA’s activities I heard the same concerns expressed as to whether the agency had stepped over the line. One senior staffer reeled off some of these questions off the top of his head:

What is the purpose of having an office in DC when the people you service are in the Levant?

Who, exactly have these D.C. UNRWA employees been meeting with?

Can they provide a list of all congressional contacts they have had?

Which staffers and lawmakers, or administration officials, have they been meeting with?

What business, exactly, have they been conducting in D.C.?

To whom, precisely, at UNRWA, does the D.C. office report?

And what is UNRWA’s measure of whether its new D.C. office is succeeding in its mission?

What, exactly, does UNRWA expect them to accomplish?

It is not as if Congress is powerless to obtain information and make certain its appropriated funds to the United Nations are not being used in ways that violate the law. Congress has subpoena power and the ability, indeed the obligation, to hold oversight hearings. Don’t be surprised to see these or other investigative strategies deployed. I suspect UNRWA is about to learn how Washington works in ways it never anticipated.