Democrats: OMB froze World Health Organization cash with same tactic used to ‘illegally’ halt Ukraine aid

The White House hit pause earlier this year on a $145 million pot of funds intended for the World Health Organization and other foreign assistance programs in a move that Democrats say mirrors the Trump administration’s decision to “illegally” freeze military aid to Ukraine.

That’s according to documents released on Friday by House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, which they obtained from the Office of Management and Budget.

The documents show that the agency used an apportionment footnote to hold up the money, requiring the State Department to produce a “written explanation” describing how the cash would be obligated in line with the president’s priorities. That footnote came as President Donald Trump sought to withdraw from WHO and halt funding for the organization.

“The Trump Administration’s rampant abuse of power has jeopardized our communities, subverted our democracy, violated our laws, and now it has undermined global efforts to fight the coronavirus,” Yarmuth, Lowey and Maloney said in a joint statement.

“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,” the lawmakers said.

A senior administration official called House Democrats' release "bogus," arguing that the money was ultimately spent and doesn't amount to a violation of federal budget law. "Nothing happening here," the official said.

The Trump administration’s 2019 decision to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine partly prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged the aid for investigations into his political rival at the time, now President-elect Joe Biden.

The agency first halted funding intended for WHO in August through an apportionment footnote. All of the money for WHO and other international programs was ultimately released just a week before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. In early September, the Trump administration announced that it would distribute millions of dollars owed to the global health organization to other international causes.

Trump and other Republicans last spring railed against the WHO over its initial response to the coronavirus when it emerged in China. The president claimed the world health body ignored the threat and bowed to pressure from China.

The freeze on funding for WHO and other foreign aid programs is notable, given that the Trump administration was never required to spend the money on the international health organization.

Language included in fiscal 2020 spending bills only notes that the administration spend the money on “necessary expenses, not otherwise provided for, to meet annual obligations of membership in international multilateral organizations.”

“We believe that pursuant to the appropriation, we have broad discretion to spend that money,” an administration official told POLITICO in April.

House Democrats have since sought to tighten that language in their fiscal 2021 spending bills for the State Department and USAID, requiring the funds to be spent specifically on WHO.

In April, Yarmuth, Lowey and Maloney introduced a bill, called the “Congressional Power of the Purse Act,” that would require all apportionment documents to be published online.

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Senate confirms Russ Vought to be White House budget chief

The Senate confirmed Russ Vought to lead the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, more than a year after he was tapped as interim director of the agency.

Vought's tenure as acting OMB director has drawn bipartisan scrutiny, including from Republicans who have opposed two failed attempts by the administration to yank back billions in foreign aid.

Democrats have criticized Vought for stonewalling congressional oversight demands, and last year he defied a subpoena after refusing to answer questions about the administration's decision to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine last summer.

That decision prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump leveraged the aid for political favors. But Vought has maintained that the Ukraine aid freeze was part of a broader foreign aid review, not a quid pro quo.

Vought first took the helm of the White House budget office during the 35-day government shutdown in January 2019, after Trump tapped former OMB Director Mick Mulvaney as his acting chief of staff.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) lauded Vought’s confirmation in a statement, adding that his “role will be crucial to help the federal government function in what is shaping up to be a very challenging budget environment that requires the attention of every one of us.“

“I look forward to working with him to help put our nation on a better fiscal path,” said Enzi, who’s retiring after this year.

But Vought has so far unsuccessfully pushed unpopular cuts to rein in federal spending, despite the president’s 2016 campaign pledge to balance the federal budget.

Even before the pandemic, the nation’s budget gap expanded after the administration and Congress embraced the Republican tax revamp in 2017 and a two-year budget deal last summer. The federal deficit is now on track to balloon to nearly $4 trillion this year after Congress mounted a colossal response to the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year.

Vought has also repeatedly drawn the ire of Democrats for stonewalling congressional oversight demands and subpoenas for testimony and information.

During a House Budget Committee hearing in February, Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) asked Vought to pledge transparency in how OMB manipulates federal dollars, in addition to a promise that OMB will adhere to federal budget laws.

“Now, when American lives and livelihoods depend on the effectiveness of the federal government and the proper implementation of fiscal policy, it is critical that Director Vought honor his commitments,” Yarmuth said in a statement on Monday. “I will honor my promise to hold him to his word.”

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Democrats seek to curb White House spending powers after Ukraine, border wall disputes

Top House Democrats unveiled a bill Wednesday that would rein in what they see as the Trump administration’s abuse of congressional spending powers in its Ukraine aid freeze and diversion of federal cash to the border wall.

The Congressional Power of the Purse Act would bolster transparency requirements around the executive branch‘s use of federal funding and increase penalties for violations of budget law, which already curbs the administration’s authority to alter congressionally appropriated funds.

Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced the bill. Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to introduce companion legislation in the upper chamber.

Democrats say the measure, which has been in the works for months, follows what they view as a series of abuses by the administration to withhold or redirect appropriated money to further the president’s personal interests and policy goals.

That includes President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency last year to free up billions of dollars for a border wall, his freeze on hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine last summer and efforts to scrap billions of dollars in foreign aid, among other actions.

“Over the past year and a half, the House Budget Committee has worked to hold this administration accountable for its systemic abuse of budget and appropriations law and degradation of our democratic principles,” Yarmuth said in a statement. “This legislation will add teeth to budget law and further empower Congress to take a stand against Administrations that disregard our Constitution.”

In January, the Government Accountability Office determined the administration broke the law by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars to Ukraine last summer — a move that prompted House Democrats' impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged the aid for political favors. The Office of Management and Budget disagreed with GAO's ruling.

OMB officials did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation. The Trump administration has so far rejected any congressional attempts to curtail its decisions around federal money.

The new legislation would expedite the GAO‘s ability to obtain information during investigations of federal budget law violations. It would also allow GAO to sue more quickly if funds are improperly withheld. Federal officials found in violation of the law could be fired or suspended without pay.

The bill would place an “expiration date” on any national emergency declarations, and the administration wouldn’t be able to rescind federal funding without congressional approval. And OMB would have to make public any decisions to slow or withhold federal funds.

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Trump halt to WHO funding violates same law as Ukraine aid freeze, House Democrats say

President Donald Trump's halt to World Health Organization funding is illegal and violates the same federal spending laws as the Ukraine aid freeze that partly prompted his impeachment, House Democrats said on Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s decision is “dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged," without elaborating on what specific action might be taken.

But a senior administration official contended that language in the most recent spending bill for the State Department and other foreign aid programs gives Trump “broad discretion” in spending money allocated to WHO, including a possible redirection of the health organization’s funding to other international causes after the administration completes a review of the funds in two to three months. Trump announced the review at the same time he said WHO funding would be halted.

House Democrats for months have homed in on the administration’s efforts to slow, halt or redirect dollars appropriated by Congress to satisfy Trump’s personal policy priorities, and they said this is another example.

They said a decision issued by the Government Accountability Office in January also applies to Trump’s action against WHO, which receives $400 million from the U.S. each year. The U.S. is the world’s largest contributor to the organization, which operates on a $4.8 billion annual budget.

GAO concluded that Trump broke the law when he paused hundreds of millions of dollars in critical military aid to Ukraine last summer, declaring that the president can't “substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.“

Democrats said Trump is breaking that law again. “In a desperate attempt to deflect blame, President Trump is violating the same spending laws that brought about his impeachment,” Evan Hollander, a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The President does not have the unilateral authority to withhold the United States’ assessed contribution to the World Health Organization,” he said. “Moreover, refusing to fund the WHO is a foolish step that only weakens international tools to fight this pandemic and future global health emergencies.“

But a senior administration official pointed to language included in fiscal 2020 appropriations law requiring that the administration spend the money on “necessary expenses, not otherwise provided for, to meet annual obligations of membership in international multilateral organizations.” The language doesn’t specify that the dollars must flow to WHO, the official said.

“We believe that pursuant to the appropriation, we have broad discretion to spend that money,” the administration official said.

Trump announced on Tuesday night that he’ll hit pause on the health organization’s funding for 60 to 90 days while his administration reviews the group’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, accusing WHO of bungling the response and failing to communicate the disease’s threat.

Similarly, the administration said it paused $400 million in military aid to Ukraine last summer while it conducted a “policy review,” with administration officials saying that they wanted to ensure other countries are contributing their fair share to the Eastern European region.

In January, GAO concluded that the president can’t withhold funds for a policy reason because it’s a violation of the Impoundment Control Act, a 1974 law that sharply curbs the executive branch’s authority to alter congressionally appropriated funds. The report undercut an oft-stated defense of Trump’s decision to hold the aid back: that it was a lawful exercise of the president’s authority.

“We disagree with GAO’s opinion,” OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said at the time. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law.”

On Wednesday, the senior administration official argued that how the White House manipulates funding for WHO is an entirely separate issue.

Many Republican lawmakers have matched Trump's criticisms of WHO over the past few weeks, accusing the organization of taking a deferential posture to the Chinese government, calling for investigations into the group’s pandemic response and demanding the resignation of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“The current WHO leadership has proven to be incompetent and shown overwhelming evidence of China bias,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees foreign aid, tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Cutting off funding to the WHO at this time is the right move.”

Others, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged the need for reform while stressing that a funding freeze could cause more harm than good as the coronavirus continues its global spread.

“The Chamber supports a reformed but functional World Health Organization, and U.S. leadership and involvement are essential to ensuring its transparency and accountability going forward,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs for the Chamber, in a statement.

“However, cutting the WHO’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world — in their response.”

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