The Hill is reporting that “A House panel unanimously voted Wednesday to limit the U.S. share of the Organization of American States [OAS] regular budget to 50 percent or less.”  Does this mean that members of Congress have come to realize the OAS’s role in arbitrarily changing the result of Haiti’s 2010/2011 elections?   Do they want to limit the U.S.’s enormous influence over parts of the OAS? 

Nope.  Members of Congress have introduced this and other bills to limit U.S. support for the OAS precisely for the opposite reason:  they believe that the OAS is no longer an effective tool for “defending U.S. interests abroad,” and this is only the latest attempt to punish deviation from Washington’s objectives.  Here is an excerpt from research prepared for Congress that shows the limits of “bipartisan” debate on this topic:

U.S. policymakers have responded to the United States’ declining ability to advance its policy preferences within the OAS in a number of ways. Some Members of Congress allege that the OAS has allied itself with anti-U.S. regimes, and is weakening democracy in Latin America. Accordingly, they maintain that support for the OAS runs counter to U.S. objectives in the hemisphere, and that the United States should withhold funding from the organization. Others disagree, arguing that OAS actions continue to closely align with U.S. priorities in many cases, and that defunding the OAS would amount to the United States turning its back on the Western Hemisphere. They maintain that weakening the one multilateral forum that includes every democratic nation of the hemisphere would strengthen the hands of hostile governments while further weakening U.S. influence in the region.

In other words, the debate seems to be whether the goal of defeating our government’s official enemies would best be served by maintaining funding or reducing funding to the OAS.  Few in Congress question why we are making enemies with democratic countries in Latin America, or countries that pose no threat to the U.S., such as Cuba.

The initial bill (S. 793) came from Senator Robert Menendez (D – NJ), co-signed by Senators Bob Corker (R – TN), Tom Udall (D – NM) and Marco Rubio (R – FL).  The bill is aimed at promoting “rules-based budgeting,” instituting quarterly briefings to Congress by the State Department on the OAS, and increasing coordination between the OAS and the Inter-American Development Bank.  The House version that passed in the Foreign Affairs Committee this week was marked up by Chairman Eliot Engel (D – NY) and Ranking Member Ed Royce (R – CA) to include a budget constraint whereby “no member state pays more than 50 percent of the organization’s assessed fees.”

This amendment would only affect the United States, of course.  The OAS is the regional bloc including all 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere (although Cuba is not a full member), and the “assessed contributions are calculated based on gross national income, with adjustments for debt burden and low per capita income.”  In short, one reason why the U.S. contributes more than 50% of the OAS’s funding is because it is the wealthiest country in the hemisphere.  Funding shortfalls have been a problem for years at the OAS, and any reduction by the U.S. would likely be disruptive, as currently it contributes about 58 percent of the organization’s regular budget (Fiscal Year 2012). 

During the mark up session, a few members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs offered comments about the bill, which passed unanimously in a bloc with other unrelated items.  The representative who devoted the most time to addressing this bill was persistent OAS critic Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL).  She said:

The OAS wastes time attacking our nation and discussing issues that are of no relevance to its charter, all the while while (sic) we in the United States contribute approximately 60 percent of this bloated OAS budget.  For example, two weeks ago the OAS met regarding Edward Snowden and the Evo Morales plane, and the Secretary General issued a press release stating, and I quote, “it is very clear this is an event that goes beyond the explanations given here.  This incident leaves a wound and the best way to heal that wound – to mend that wound – is to know what really happened, what really took place.”  What a waste.

Indeed, it is doubtful that the U.S. will be able to initiate a change in the fee structure of the OAS, but talk like this may inspire renewed commitment to the region’s less compromised multilateral organizations, such as CELAC, UNASUR, and ALBA by Latin American nations.