Congress Defends the UN: Coburn Opposes

A truism of the modern Congress is that as a session draws to a conclusion Congress suddenly becomes both very productive and very secretive.  This year — the first year of a new Congress — is, unfortunately, no exception.

While I’ve often criticized how items like earmarks are secretly slipped into bills at the 11th hour (taxpayers can expect about 12,000 earmarks in this year’s omnibus spending bill) what also is troubling is what is taken out.

One provision that is not likely to survive in this year’s omnibus is a simple, straightforward and common sense provision that will require the United Nations to post online information about how it spent its money in 2007 before the U.S. taxpayers give the U.N. another $5 billion for 2008.  The principle of the amendment is simple: Don’t expect new money until you tell us how you spent last year’s money.  Only in Washington, D.C. is that concept controversial.

When I offered this provision as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2008 Foreign Operations spending bill, 91 of my Senate colleagues supported this policy while only one voted in opposition.  This near-unanimous vote, however, concealed the Senate’s true intent to tell the American people it supports transparency and reform in public while doing everything it can privately to avoid embarrassing the U.N.

Let me be clear: while I would support a viable alternative to the U.N. — something like a league of democratic nations — Congress should everything in its power to make the U.N. a credible and effective institution.  Millions of lives around the globe are affected by success or failure at the U.N.  The world’s dispossessed and oppressed as well as U.S. taxpayers deserve nothing less that a full accounting of the U.N. finances.

The U.N. has a price tag of $5.3 billion a year for the American taxpayer.  Yet, after these dollars are sent to the U.N., the money is virtually untraceable.  In my oversight work in Congress I often see this corollary to the economic principle that “no one washes a rental car” at work in bureaucracies:  People who don’t have to file expense reports don’t keep their receipts.

When the money can be followed in the U.N. corruption and mismanagement are common destinations.  Out of $1.4 billion in U.N. contracts internally investigated in a recent audit, $610 million — roughly 40 percent — was tainted by 10 “significant fraud and corruption schemes.”

Recent cases like the Oil for Food scandal have proven that insiders laundered funds to work directly against the best interests of the United States and democracies around the world.  North Korea received cash through the U.N. Development Program and used it to purchase missiles.  In Zimbabwe, a U.N. official was using Development Program funds to facilitate a diamond smuggling ring for a mining company of which he is the chairman.  It is clear that without transparency and accountability, taxpayer dollars are going to continue to be mismanaged and used for purposes that are contrary to not only the best interests of the United States but the world’s most vulnerable populations.

We live in an unusual time in which some American politicians are so preoccupied with an anti-President Bush bias that they are willing to oppose common sense transparency measures and look the other way in the face of obvious corruption and mismanagement at the U.N.  The greatest threat to the U.N.’s credibility is not our foreign policy, but the U.N. itself.

Congress can take a bold step toward increasing the credibility of U.N., and also itself, by doing the unexpected thing and maintaining this common sense transparency provision.  Taxpayers expect elected officials to safeguard their money, not the U.N.’s penchant for secrecy.