Thursday, June 24, 1999

Pay off the U.S. debt to
the United Nations

Bullet The issue: The United States owes the United Nations about $1 billion.
Bullet Our view: Repayment of the debt is important to maintain U.S. leader-ship of the world organization.

A Senate vote has raised the prospect that the United States will pay off its debt to the United Nations -- unless the proposal gets bogged down in the House again. In a 98-1 vote, the Senate approved a State Department bill that would free payments of $819 million in debts to the U.N. over three years and forgive $107 million that the U.N. owes this country, making a total repayment package of $926 million.

In return, the bill proposes that the maximum U.S. share of the regular U.N. budget be reduced from the present 25 percent to 20 percent. It would also cut the U.S. share of peacekeeping operations from 31 percent to 25 percent.

The legislation also seeks to impose new conditions, including a demand that the U.N. not charge the United States interest on the arrears, not take steps to create a standing army, not seek to levy taxes on Americans and not seek to exercise sovereignty over U.S. citizens.

The United Nations has warned Washington that it will lose its General Assembly voting rights if at least $250 million of the back assessments -- some dating back 13 years -- aren't paid by December. U.N. officials claim the U.S. owes more than $1.5 billion, which Washington disputes.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the Senate action. Whether the other member nations will go along with the Senate's proposed conditions is questionable, however.

There is also a possibility that the legislation will become entangled in the House in an unrelated dispute over abortion, as similar bills have in the past. The House leadership should try to keep that from happening again.

Payment of the debt is important to maintain American leadership in the world organization. Although the United Nations is a disappointment in some respects, it cannot be ignored by U.S. policy makers.

Another encouraging development is the prospect of Senate confirmation within a few weeks of Richard Holbrooke as ambassador to the United Nations. Holbrooke's nomination had been held up for a year by ethics investigations by both the Clinton administration and the Foreign Relations Committee.

Holbrooke told the senators he supports a smaller U.S. contribution to the U.N. and other conditions the Senate placed on repayment of the U.S. debt. He also promised that reform of inefficient U.N. practices would be his "highest sustained priority."

The United States needs capable and experienced representation at the U.N., which Holbrooke is well qualified to provide.

Holbrooke, a career diplomat now working at an investment bank, is a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Germany. He also served as the Clinton administration's special envoy to the Balkans, and was the architect of the 1995 peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio, which ended the war in Bosnia.

Court ruling defines
states’ legal immunity

Bullet The issue: The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld states' immunity from lawsuits brought by individuals in state courts to enforce federal laws.
Bullet Our view: The decision is important in asserting state rights in the federal system.

CONTROL over distribution of federal funds has given Congress lopsided superiority over the legal authority of states, but the U.S. Supreme Court has placed limits on intrusion into states' rights. By a 5-4 vote, the high court has ruled that individuals cannot sue states in their own courts to enforce federal laws. The decision is important in assuring some balance in the federal system.

States have long been recognized as being immune from federal lawsuits by individuals. When a suit brought by state employees in Maine seeking federally mandated time-and-a-half overtime wage rates was thrown out of federal court on that basis, they refiled the suit in state court.

The Maine Supreme Court held that validating the suit in state court would have circumvented the congressional inability to breach states' immunity from suits by individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

The Constitution states that federal law "shall be the supreme law of the land," and the ruling in the Maine case recognizes the authority of the federal government to seek enforcement of federal law -- in federal court.

The high court's ruling will not allow states to ignore federal law, even as it relates to the pay rates of state employees. It permits the U.S. secretary of labor to sue the state on behalf of the state employees seeking compliance with federal overtime rates; the employees are simply prohibited from filing such a suit on their own behalf.

The Clinton administration argued against giving Maine immunity in state court against individuals suing to enforce federal law. Hawaii was among 37 states supporting Maine in a friend-of-the court written submission.

Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued that federal enforcement of federal law against the states is too burdensome to permit representation of citizens against state noncompliance. If that is the case, then Congress should reduce applicable federal laws to an enforceable level.

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