Why is Congress Threatening to Hold Up Funding for Security Improvements at UN Headquarters in New York?

UPDATE:  The bill failed.  Score one for common sense.

Later today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a piece of legislation that would withdraw $180 million of U.S. contributions to the United Nations.  Specifically, the bill, which is authored by House Foreign Affairs Chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, would  ask the UN to return something called the “UN Tax Equalization Fund,” which is a mechanism that provides financial incentives for Americans working at the UN.

Most countries offer tax exemptions for their citizens who work at the UN and international organizations. The United States does not. However, the United States did not want to disadvantage their citizens from taking jobs at the UN or other international organizations so the United States government developed a mechanism to help boost the real-salaries of American employees at the UN.

Via email, my friends at the Better World Campaign offered this brief explainer:

The UN and U.S. recognized that this situation seemed to penalize American nationals by paying them a lower salary than other UN employees that were not taxed by their governments and, therefore, could discourage U.S. nationals from working at the UN.  To overcome this, the U.S. and UN adopted a complex scheme “whereby the United States taxes IO salaries, the IO refunds the taxes paid by U.S. employees, and the United States reimburses the IO for such amounts through bilateral tax reimbursement agreements and tax equalization funds.”  The intended effect is to equalize the net pay of UN employees despite differing national tax obligations.

Over the past several years, for a variety of factors funds paid into the “TEF” had accumulated to the point where the United States has built up $180 million worth of credit.  The UN asked successive American administrations how they would like this funding to be used. Rather than ask for it back, the State Department directed the UN to apply $100 million for security upgrades to the UN headquarters in New York and $80 million for American dues to  UN peacekeeping missions.

So that is where things stood–until today.  Josh Rogin has a very well reported examination of the politics of today’s vote.  What is particularly interesting is an alliance between the Obama administration and one of its most reliable critics, Representative Peter King of New York. Aside from representing New York, Representative King chairs the House Homeland Security committee and is adamant about the need for security upgrades to the UN headquarters in New York–which is already in the midst of a huge renovation.  From Josh Rogin:

“This would undermine security in New York City, it’s wrong and it’s indefensible,” King said, adding that the push for increasing security at the U.N. has gone on for years and should not be scuttled now that it is actually happening…”We’re talking about human life here. If someone is killed in an attack on the U.N., I don’t think we will be able to go back and say, well, the money was in the wrong account,” said King.

Because of the various byzantine rules of the U.S. Congress, this particular piece of legislation will require the support of two thirds of members to pass.  That is a pretty big hurdle considering that the Democratic leadership is opposed.  At the same time, it is hard to imagine that most members have ever heard “the UN Tax Equalization Fund,” and it is not like there are large constituencies in home districts that are clamoring for its preservation.

Still, it’s important to remember that security is a very big concern for the UN right now. It has already emerged as a preferred target of al Qaeda and al Qaeda insipred groups. The UN’s headquarters in Algeria was destroyed in a twin suicide bombing in 2007.  The UN’s world food program office in Pakistan was hit by a suicide bomber in 2009. And, of course, there was the August 2003 attack that destroyed the UN headquarters in Iraq.  All the while Al Qaeda leaders have built a mythology about the UN to encourage attacks against the world body.

That is all to say that these security upgrades are very important and voting for this legislation is a completely myopic way of settling a political score against the United Nations.