The Trump administration has decided to withhold hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars from the World Health Organization over its complicity in helping China avoid responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, but it will be up to Congress to ramp up pressure on the organization to enact reforms.
President Donald Trump promised to repurpose WHO funding to support other international causes after a review, but the hold only affects a portion of funding that has yet to be transferred to the international organization. A senior White House official said America has already sent about $98 million to the organization, but that is just a fraction of the remaining $365 to $465 million that would have been available to the WHO in 2020. The money gives the United States some leverage, but a more permanent and all-encompassing change to America's relationship with the WHO must come from Congress, pitting congressional Republicans against their Democratic counterparts as the former seek to condition future aid on the resignation of top WHO official Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
"Congressional action is not necessary to implement the President's policy during the 60- to 90-day review period, but it would help immensely in convincing the WHO that U.S. concerns are not ephemeral," Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said. "WHO leadership may be hoping that Congress or a new administration could restore funding. If the President wants to apply pressure on the WHO to reform, having Congress include reform demands in legislation would be very helpful."
The WHO has faced bipartisan criticism for its botched handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 30,000 Americans, as critics argue that its leaders have been excessively deferential to Beijing. For instance, the organization repeated regime claims that there are no documented cases of person-to-person transmission of the new coronavirus as late as mid-January, ignoring December reports from Taiwan about such cases. The WHO continued to praise China's coronavirus response for its "transparency," despite mounting evidence that the Chinese government continues to censor and suppress information about the deadly disease.
U.S. donations to the WHO, which account for roughly 20 percent of the organization's budget, are given through assessed contributions and voluntary contributions. Assessed contributions are membership fees calculated based on a country's wealth and population, while voluntary contributions are additional donations made on top of the assessed contributions. A senior administration official told the Washington Free Beacon that the United States has already paid roughly $58 million but withholds $65 million in assessed contributions. As for voluntary contributions, the official said roughly $40 million has already been transferred to the WHO, while $300 to $400 million is being reprogrammed to sponsor different organizations, totaling over $350 million in withheld funds.
The White House can divert money away from the WHO because the legislative language in the U.S. budget is broad enough that the allocated funds could be diverted to alternative institutions. The administration official expressed concern that Congress might undermine the administration's attempt to pressure international organizations to resist Chinese influence—if congressional leaders mandate increased funding specifically for the WHO, it would undermine the White House push for reforms.
"Is Congress going to keep trying to appropriate WHO, U.N. money at much higher levels than the [White House] budget? The answer is probably yes, let's be honest," the official said. "If you want us to spend this money, we are going to spend it with people on the ground who do this the right way, not the World Health Organization."
Despite the misgivings of the White House, Republicans in both houses have pushed forward a variety of measures to hold the WHO accountable beginning in March. Republican congressman Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) introduced sense-of-the-House legislation on April 7 demanding that the U.S. government makes no voluntary contributions to the WHO until Tedros resigns and an international commission is set up to investigate the organization's conduct. The nonbinding resolution left untouched the U.S. government's assessed dues, which amount to roughly 25 percent of its total contribution.
"Dr. Tedros truly mishandled this pandemic. He was either, I'd say, grossly negligent or worse, he worked hand-in-glove with the Chinese Communist Party to cover this up early on," Reschenthaler told the Free Beacon. "I felt that it was my duty to try to make sure that the World Health Organization reforms itself, as long as Americans are paying money into it."
Democrats have so far refused to join Republicans in the effort. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said on Wednesday that the White House's funding hold was "illegal" and vowed to challenge it. Reschenthaler has pushed for bipartisanship but Democrats have been unwilling to publicly sign on to his legislation.
"Sadly, the Democrats are putting politics first and frankly apologizing for the CCP above what's good for the world and what's good for the United States," he said. "I think that if they did put the health of the world first ... they would join my resolution and stop funding the World Health Organization."
Congressional Republicans appear intent on holding the WHO accountable with or without Democratic support. Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) has called on Tedros to appear before Congress, while several Republican senators have called for his resignation. The House Oversight Committee has also demanded documents from the WHO pertaining to its relationship with China and Taiwan, and Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) has demanded that the WHO withdraw several "highly misleading statements of support for the Chinese Government's response to COVID-19."
It remains unclear how cooperative the WHO will be with Republican oversight efforts since Congress lacks formal jurisdiction over international institutions. The last time Congress conducted an all-encompassing investigation into an international organization—the 2004-2006 Senate probe into the U.N.'s corrupt Oil-for-Food program—U.N. officials "weren't very cooperative," according to Steven Groves, a former Senate counsel who spearheaded the probe. He said that the Senate investigation was stonewalled by U.N. officials. Many of the records included in the report were obtained from American officials.
"I don't think we ended up actually issuing a subpoena on them—they have immunity," Groves said about the U.N. officials. "The bottom line is that since international organizations are not under our jurisdiction and have immunity from compelled disclosure of anything … you can't force them."
Groves said that while congressional oversight over the WHO will be a "long shot," Congress might be able to convince the WHO to cooperate by leveraging its financial dependency on U.S. contributions.
"[Congress] is in no position to compel the WHO to turn over anything," he said. "Now, the reality of the situation is that the U.S. is the largest funder of WHO. So the WHO will feel some type of obligation to cooperate at some level or another."
The White House review of WHO activity is expected to be completed by July.