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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Debt to UN Threatens Its Voting Rights

UNITED NATIONS -- Police stopped traffic for nearly a kilometer in the rain, a flock of Secret Service agents were ready to take a bullet, and the secretary-general of the United Nations stood at attention - all for the man who leads the world's biggest deadbeat nation.

President Bill Clinton still has plenty of political capital at the United Nations. But it has been 13 years since the United States began withholding its dues here in an attempt to force the United Nations to cut costs - and in ways large and small, the mounting debt is eroding U.S. prestige and leadership in the organization of the world's nations.

"There's no reason to hide it,'' Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said last week after meeting with several foreign ministers at the opening sessions of the UN General Assembly. "They resent us deeply because we are not paying - and we are the backbone of the UN.''

Diplomats here bridle at the suggestion that their countries pay more to let the wealthy United States off the hook. One quip heard in the halls last week: "No representation without taxation.''

By the United Nations' calculations, the United States owes $1.67 billion in back payments and must pay at least $350 million by the end of the year to keep its vote in the General Assembly. If itdoesn't pay, it will be sidelined with company that the United States doesn't usually keep: 25 poor or war-torn countries, including Iraq, Somalia and Burundi.

Already, Washington has lost its seat on the world body's key budgetary committee, forfeiting its chance to shape policy or negotiate a reduction in dues. It can no longer rally other countries behind reform efforts. Some housekeepers in the UN building have even groused that they shouldn't have to clean American organizations' offices until the United States coughs up.

"I feel it's very difficult for the United States to assume a leadership role as long as we don't pay our bills,'' Albright said.

In 1986, Washington started withholding payments as a tool to urge the sprawling bureaucracy to reform. Congress added other restrictions on funds to protest the United Nations' support of family planning programs and "terrorist'' organizations. And in 1994, Congress widened the gap with a vote to reduce the U.S. share of peacekeeping programs from 30.5 percent to 25 percent, a unilateral action the United Nations never recognized.

Washington says it owes only a little more than $1 billion, but either way, the arrears make up nearly half the United Nations' operating budget. Without Washington's money, said Joseph Connor, the UN finance chief, the organization can barely keep the lights on.

"We're very slow in paying our bills,'' said Connor, who left his post as head of the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to take charge of the United Nations' books last year. "The gas and electric companies haven't shut us down yet, but we have a little bit of a check float going on.''

More significantly, the UN doesn't have the funds to compensate host nations for ongoing peacekeeping operations, much less pay for new ones in East Timor and Kosovo. And few countries want to contribute even more money, with little chance of being paid back until the United States settles its bill.

"It's like starting on a cross-country drive with the gas tank on empty,'' Connor said.

Clinton says he's doing his best to persuade a stubborn Congress to approve the money with no strings attached. In his speech last week to his toughest audience, the 188 members of the United Nations, Clinton said the United States "has the responsibility to equip the UN with the resources it needs to be effective.''

But some diplomats here doubt he has the influence or the interest to pull it off.

The roadblock is a congressional contingent that thinks the United States, if it remains in the UN at all, should have a greater say in how its money is spent. Congress actually appropriated most of the funds in 1997, but with conditions.

The stickiest is a demand by Republican Representative Christopher Smith that no U.S. money - related to the UN or not - be used for programs that lobby for population control or abortion overseas. Clinton vetoed the bill rather than bow to a controversial issue that is unrelated to the UN assessment.

Now, with the clock ticking, Congress is searching for a compromise. One solution might be for Smith to drop his anti-abortion rider or stick it on another bill, something he has said he won't do. Another scenario is that, like last year, a minimal UN payment is included in an end-of-the-year omnibus bill, handing over just enough cash to keep the General Assembly vote. Or the clock just might run out.