In the past two years, a large majority of United Nations member
states has decided to ignore U.S. objections to increases in the
U.N. regular budget and its lack of progress on reform. In three
critical votes, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary)
of the U.N. General Assembly has broken a 20-year tradition of
adopting budgetary decisions only by consensus. These votes--which
approve unprecedented budget increases while rebuffing reform
efforts--hearken back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. In those
years, similar practices led Congress to adopt legislation
withholding 20 percent of assessed U.S. contributions to the U.N.
regular budget and specialized agencies until the U.S. was given
more influence over budgetary matters. This move prompted the U.N.
to adopt the informal rule requiring consensus on budgetary
matters, after which Congress then rescinded the legislation.
The recent votes indicate that the U.N. has forgotten the
impetus behind the consensus-based budgeting process and
illustrates the shortsightedness of Congress in rescinding the
legislation backstopping the process. Congress should rectify its
error and adopt new provisions for restrictions on U.S.
contributions to the U.N. if the budget is adopted over U.S.
Violating 20 Years of Tradition
For the past 20 years, the U.N. has operated under a tradition
of adopting budgetary decisions only by consensus. This informal
process was adopted under threat of U.S. financial withholding
under the Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment to the Foreign Relations
Authorization Act for fiscal years 1986 and 1987. At the time,
diplomatic efforts were proving insufficient to arrest the
increasing politicization of U.N. operations and programs and the
organization's rapidly increasing budgets.
The United States and other Western countries had sought
unsuccessfully to hold the U.N. to a zero-growth budget in the
first half of the 1980s. This led former U.S. Ambassador to the
U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick to testify that "[t]he countries which
contribute more than 85 percent of the U.N. budget regularly vote
against that budget, but are unable to prevent its increases
because the countries who pay less than 10 percent of the budget
have the votes." This frustration led Congress to adopt the
1985 Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment, which withheld 20 percent of U.S.
assessed contributions to the U.N. regular budget and specialized
agencies until weighted voting on budgetary matters was adopted. As
noted by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Charles
... there was a consensus in the United States that radical
surgery was called for. Numerous studies and investigations, many
of them instigated by the U.N. itself, had revealed a pattern of
waste, mismanagement, and duplication. The U.N.'s socioeconomic
agenda called for the redistribution of wealth from the
industrialized democracies to the less-developed countries of the
As a result, a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1984
overwhelmingly approved the Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment to the
authorization of the U.S.'s 25 percent share of the U.N.'s
administrative budget. The terms of the amendment seemed
unambiguous: Shape up, impose fiscal discipline on yourself, and
move toward some form of weighted voting on the U.N. budget in the
General Assembly, with "bonus" votes for big contributors in rough
proportion to their contributions, or else suffer an annual 20
percent withholding of the U.S. payment.
The Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment was a modest success. Weighted
voting was not adopted, but the U.N. did informally agree in 1986
to the consensus-based budgeting process, under which every country
theoretically had a "veto" in that it could vote "no" and halt the
process. This allowed the President to waive the 20
percent withholding restriction based on a determination that the
U.N. had made substantial progress toward procedures called for in
Kassebaum-Solomon. Congress later rescinded the
Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment based on the determination that the
U.N. had largely addressed U.S. concerns.
Under the consensus-based budgetary process, the U.S. was able
to prevent excessive growth in the U.N. budget for nearly 20 years.
Recently, however, a coalition of U.N. member states has violated
this informal process:
- In the wake of numerous U.N. scandals, the U.S. and other major
donors sought to reform the U.N. Secretariat. In 2005, the General
Assembly approved a broad reform agenda and asked the
Secretary-General to submit detailed reform proposals. To put teeth
behind the reform effort, the U.S. led a campaign to cap the U.N.
assessed regular biennial 2006-2007 budget at $950 million, with
the remaining budget to be authorized after the reforms were
adopted. Annan's reform proposals were, however, blocked by an
overwhelming majority led by opposition from the G-77. On April 28,
2006, when the G-77 forced a vote, the South African resolution was
approved by a vote of 108 to 50 with three abstentions. The
General Assembly subsequently passed the resolution by a margin of
121 to 50 with two abstentions on May 8, 2006. These votes were the
first major break with this consensus tradition in two
- The vote to oppose Annan's reforms precipitated a showdown over
the $950 million U.N. budget cap, which was projected to be
exhausted by the end of June 2006. The United States and Japan,
which together provided nearly 42 percent of the U.N. budget,
opposed approving the rest of the U.N. budget unless the General
Assembly passed the reform proposals. Again led by the G-77, the
cap was eliminated and the remainder of the U.N. budget was
approved without adopting the reforms sought by the U.S. and other
major contributors. Although the U.S. did not vote against the
resolution, it disassociated itself from the consensus position.
- This past December, a large majority of U.N. member states
again violated the informal rule on consensus-based decision-making
on budgetary issues. Over strong resistance from the U.S.
delegation, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary)
recommended a $4.17 billion biennial budget for 2008-2009 on
December 22, 2008. The U.S. delegation objected to specific
provisions included in the budget, such as funding for the "Durban
Review Conference," and out of concern "that the final
2008-2009 budget for the biennium will be significantly higher than
this initial budget." Indeed, a number of projected expenses
were not included in the budget, and the overall budget is
projected to be more than $1 billion over the approved budget,
representing the largest increase in U.N. history. The budget was
approved by a recorded vote of 141 in favor and the United States
was the only country to vote "no." The decision to overrule
the U.S., which is by far the largest contributor to the U.N.
regular budget, was met with a standing ovation by the
other member states. The General Assembly later adopted the budget
by a vote of 142 to 1.
These votes signal that the majority of U.N. member states who
contribute very little to the budget no longer feel the need to
listen to the concerns of its largest contributor--not even to the
minimal extent imposed under the consensus-based decision-making
process. This attitude has predictably led to unprecedented
budgetary increases and undermined efforts to reform the United
What Congress Should Do
Congress should use the limited success of the Kassebaum-Solomon
Amendment as a model and a lesson. The amendment demonstrated that
the threat of financial withholding is an effective lever in
getting the U.N. to make changes to address U.S. concerns.
However, the solution of consensus-based budgeting was limited.
It was relatively successful in constraining growth of the U.N.
budget by providing every country a theoretical veto over the
budget. If it chose, the U.S. generally could block initiatives it
opposed or prevent large budget increases through this process.
However, the rule also made it difficult to eliminate outdated or
ineffective U.N. activities as long as they had a single champion
among the member states. This proved to be a substantial impediment
to U.N. reform. Worse, the fact that consensus-based budgeting is
an informal agreement rather than a hard rule has allowed a
majority of member states to override the U.S. and other major
contributors without consequence.
Congress should use its power of the purse to withhold U.S.
contributions to the U.N. regular budget if the membership adopts a
budget over the objection of the United States. In return for the
release of these funds, Congress should demand that the U.N., at a
minimum, reinstitute the consensus-based budgeting process as a
hard rule. Ideally, however, Congress should go further and emulate
the original requirement of Kassebaum-Solomon: Require the U.N. to
adopt weighted voting on budgetary matters or eliminate the
practice of assessing member states for most U.N. activities in
favor of voluntary funding.
Congress should act to protect U.S. interests at the U.N. by
announcing that its failure to act on reform and its approving
budget funds over the objection of the U.S. will lead to financial
withholding. Outside pressure from Congress has been effective in
the past and should be used again. The U.N. has repeatedly
demonstrated that financial leverage is the most effective way to
force the organization to take U.S. concerns into account. Congress
should pass an updated version of the Kassebaum-Solomon Amendment
that would withhold 20 percent of the U.S. contribution to the U.N.
regular budget if the membership adopts a budget over the objection
of the United States or until it adopts new voting procedures to
provide major contributors more influence in budgetary matters.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay
Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret
Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby
Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage