Can Congress Force Trump to Pay the WHO?

WHO logo

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it is deadly serious. Last week, Trump declared that he was going to pull funding from the WHO, the World Health Organization.

The WHO is an agency of the United Nations, which oversees international public health. They are charged with “advocating for universal healthcare, monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies.” (Source) As an agency of the UN, the U.S. is one of 194 nations that helps to fund the WHO. The rest of their budget comes from international organizations and foundations, the UN, and private donors.

Roughly one-third of what America pays the WHO are “assessed fees,” or essentially dues, and the remaining two-thirds is considered a donation. It is unclear at this point, if the money Trump is suggesting he is pulling from the WHO comes from the dues or the annual donation. This is an important distinction which I will circle back to in a moment.

Why is Trump doing this?

Why is Trump withholding critical funds from an organization tasked with helping the  international community fight COVID-19? In the middle of the crisis?

The answer lies in his truly unhelpful daily briefings. He has repeatedly pointed the finger at China, trying to blame the country for the situation we find ourselves in, anything to deflect from his own leadership failings. As that argument has failed to take hold, he has looked for another scapegoat and has clearly landed on the WHO. I won’t repeat his ridiculous claims here, but if you must see what he’s said, you can find that in this CNN article.

Can Congress do anything?

Congress has the power of the purse, and is responsible for appropriations. They’ve already appropriated money in the budget to go to the WHO. It is the executive branch’s responsibility to spend it in alignment with what Congress stipulates.

The House Democrats were quick to call Trump’s move illegal, in that it violates federal spending laws. The White House contends that it has broad discretion to spend that money and indicated that they’d like to use the funds for another public health initiative.

Fun fact: It is the same spending law that Trump violated when he stopped the payments that Congress had appropriated to go to Ukraine, which as we all know led to his impeachment.

If you’d like to read more about the legal arguments as to what the White House can and can’t do with Congressional appropriations, this Politico article explains it well.

Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not spell out exactly what action Congress would take, she clearly intends to fight this decision. On Wednesday she said, “This is another case, as I have said, of the president’s ineffective response, that ‘a weak person, a poor leader, takes no responsibility. A weak person blames others. This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged.”

Can we do anything?

Any time Congress has the power to tackle an issue, we should be calling our own representatives to let them know how we want them to act.

Contact your Representative to tell them that you want them to make sure the WHO gets the funding that they are counting on from the U.S. You might want to use the argument that Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, made. She said, “President Trump must stop his petty, counterproductive political games. The coronavirus cannot just be defeated here in the United States, it has to be defeated in every conceivable location throughout the world.”

And that means not pulling funding from the international body charged with coordinating the global response to the pandemic.

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