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Democrats: Trump WHO funding hold skirted federal budget law

House Democrats likened the move to a freeze administration officials put on military aid to Ukraine last year

House Democrats on Friday accused the White House of abusing its powers in withholding funding from the World Health Organization, likening the move to a freeze that administration officials put on military aid to Ukraine last year.

Several House committees released documents obtained from the Office of Management and Budget, showing that the budget office put a temporary hold on funds destined for the WHO beginning Aug. 19, 2020.

“The documents obtained by our Committees show OMB took legally binding steps to cater to the President’s dangerous and misguided whims, using an apportionment footnote to freeze expiring funds and circumvent Congress — the same tactic used to illegally withhold aid to Ukraine and which ultimately led to President Trump’s impeachment,” read a statement from House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.

A senior administration official disputed the charge, saying the administration had “made crystal clear that we were no longer going to be providing funding for WHO because of their corruption and incompetence in tackling the coronavirus.” 

President Donald Trump wrote to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on May 18 criticizing the organization for a “failed response” to the COVID-19 outbreak and the WHO’s “alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China.”

Trump had suspended U.S. contributions to the WHO on April 14. In his May 18 letter, Trump said if the WHO did not “commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”

The funds were ultimately released in late September, but none of them went to the WHO. The White House said the money was reprogrammed for other purposes and obligated before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

It is not clear how much funding was withheld or which State Department programs received the reprogrammed funds.

The OMB documents show the funds were withheld from the Contributions to International Organizations account, which is under the State Department. A Democratic aide said based on their calculations, $179.7 million was put on hold.

The funds were temporarily frozen through what is called a “footnote” in OMB parlance. The funds had been apportioned earlier in the year, a process under which OMB sets out a timeline for spending to occur. 

In the footnotes, OMB said the unobligated funds would be made available for obligation five calendar days “after the Department of State provides OMB a written explanation of how such resources will be obligated consistent with the law and the President’s priorities.”

A Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly charged that the footnote language shows that “this was a policy-motivated freeze which would not even qualify as an allowable basis for a deferral under the” 1974 budget law.

The administration official said OMB “provided the Committees with these documents to clearly show the legal and routine actions we took to reprogram funds within the ‘Contributions to International Organizations’ account consistent with the law.”

But the Democratic aide said the move appeared to be a violation of the 1974 budget law that prohibits the president from “impounding,” or withholding funds appropriated by Congress, except under limited circumstances. “We think this is a legal issue,” the aide said.

Last January, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the OMB broke the law when it temporarily withheld the Ukraine aid because it did so for “policy reasons” rather than as part of a “programmatic delay.” OMB disputed the finding, contending that the withholding of Ukraine funds was legal and noting that the GAO is a legislative agency and its decisions are not binding on the administration.

Yarmuth is pushing to pass legislation he and other House committee leaders introduced this year that they say would increase transparency and accountability on the part of OMB. Among other things, the measure would require the agency to make all apportionment documents publicly available; require funds to be obligated 90 days before they expire; and authorize “administrative discipline” for budget officials found responsible for violating the law.

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