Whether you love or hate the United Nations, one thing all Americans ought to be able to agree on is that sloshing billions of American tax dollars into the UN, with little accountability and regardless of UN performance, is a chump’s game. I’d even suggest it is no favor at all to the UN itself — corroding its incentives for decent behavior, and swaddling its staff and offices in plush sinecures that are increasingly catching the attention of financially strapped American taxpayers, who pick up the biggest share of the UN tab.
Yet the chief effort currently on the table to reform the UN — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s “United Nations Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act of 2011″ — is playing in Washington as an utterly partisan issue. There are so far 98 co-sponsors for this bill, and not a single Democrat among them.
Why’s that? The Hill reports that according to Ros-Lehtinen, the Obama administration is telling Democrats to stay away from her bill. The bill seeks to clean up the UN by revamping some of its financial incentives — basically proposing to condition a substantial share of U.S. money on UN performance. This would include potentially withholding some of the assessed dues with which the UN General Assembly bankrolls its self-approved and ever-expanding budgets, for which the U.S. dutifully pays 22%. The administration’s argument against this approach takes the line that if America stops automatically dispensing money at the UN’s demand, it would reduce U.S. influence and ability to reform the UN.
By that argument, America’s clout at the UN consists chiefly of bribery. And there are a great many signs at the UN that such bribery has long ago been absorbed into the system not as an an exceptionally generous contribution by the host state, for which the other 192 are grateful. Rather, America’s out-sized dues are viewed by the UN’s other member states, and many on its staff, as an entitlement.
Maybe the administration should take a closer look at some of the facts now being unearthed by its own envoy for UN management and reform, Joseph Torsella. I don’t mean to suggest that Torsella is at odds with his boss — if anything, he seems to be trying to walk the impossible line of promoting reform by reconciling the administration’s give-’em-the-money theory with the UN’s gimme!-gimme! realities. But to Torsella’s credit, in his efforts to persuade the UN to behave, he has been digging up a lot of information that suggests there are excellent reasons for withholding money from the UN.
In remarks Thursday to the UN General Assembly’s budget oversight committee (known at the UN as the “Fifth Committee” or ACABQ) Torsella spelled out some of the profligacies of a UN budget which for a decade now “has grown dramatically, relentlessly, and exponentially,” more than doubling to $5.4 billion for 2010-2011, from $2.6 billion for 2001-2002. (He was talking about the “core” budget, which is actually just a fraction of an overall UN system budget that has soared to somewhere north of $25 billion, and to which the U.S. in 2010 contributed almost $7.7 billion.)
Torsella noted that the largest UN cost is for personnel, and the total dollar amount for the UN payroll (that would be the secretariat’s core payroll, not the far larger UN system) has grown over the past decade by 70%. More concretely, he said that the average UN staffer now collects compensation totaling $238,000 biannually. That works out to $119,000 on average per year, for more than 10,000 UN staffers covered by the regular budget.
To illustrate what that actually means, Torsella noted that while $100,000 is a mere rounding error to a UN proposing a $5 billion-plus regular budget, for Americans it represents the average federal taxes collected from 16 hard-working American families over the course of a full year. Credit Torsella again, that’s a vivid way of explaining just what’s going on with those soaring UN budgets. In other words, it takes the aggregate federal taxes of thousands of American families, working year-round, to sustain the tax-free six-figure incomes of all those UN bureaucrats on the sky-rocketing UN payroll — for which the U.S. pays the biggest share.
UN profligacy, coupled with such outrages as last week’s three-ring anti-Semitic circus at the General Assembly, is reaching the point at which American voters may seriously take notice. Washington pols would be wise to view this not as a partisan issue, but as an American issue. If the Obama administration doesn’t like the idea of Democrats signing on to a UN reform bill from the Republican Ros-Lehtinen, then it’s time for some competing proposals for reducing the gusher of U.S. tax dollars into the UN, and conditioning U.S. money on genuine UN reform. What we’re seeing right now from the administration — or at least from its new envoy for UN management and reform — is a long-overdue and much-needed expose of at least a few aspects of UN extravagance and abuse, but no real plan to stop it.