US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed to challenge President Donald Trump's decision to suspend funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO), a move widely criticised as dangerous and harmful during a global pandemic.
"The president's halting of funding to the WHO as it leads the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic is senseless," Pelosi said in a statement. "This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged."
Trump announced his intention to suspend US support for the WHO on Tuesday, accusing the United Nations' public health agency of "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus".
Payments would be held for up to 90 days, during which time the administration will investigate the agency's response, and a resumption in payments would be contingent on the outcome of the inquiry, Trump said.
With its payments accounting for around 15 per cent of the organisation's US$6.2 billion budget over the last two years, the US is the WHO's biggest contributor. Washington's outlays of foreign aid, including to the WHO, must be approved by Congress as part of the annual federal budget.
The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 stipulates that a president can withhold such funding for up to 45 days, only after "a special message to Congress identifying the amount of the proposed rescission; the reasons for it; and the budgetary, economic and programmatic effects of the rescission." Withholding beyond that time frame would require an act of Congress.
The American Medical Association (AMA) also called Trump's decision "dangerous".
"During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organization is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating Covid-19 easier," AMA president Patrice Harris said. "Fighting a global pandemic requires international cooperation and reliance on science and data."
"Cutting funding to the WHO - rather than focusing on solutions - is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world," she added. "The AMA is deeply concerned by this decision and its wide-ranging ramifications, and we strongly urge the president to reconsider."
Trump may have a legal basis for cutting at least some of the funding.
"There are doubtlessly reasonable grounds for criticism of the WHO, although the administration's focus on it is intended to distract from its own handling of the crisis, to continue advancing efforts begun in 2017 to reduce American funding for international health efforts, as well as to further its particularly xenophobic and jingoistic framing of the crisis," said David Alexander Bateman, an assistant professor at Cornell University's department of government.
"The administration, however, might be on sound legal footing for cutting off some sources of WHO funding, although much will hinge on the specific language of the relevant authorisations and appropriations that have passed Congress."
US funding for the WHO is divided into assessed dues, which are currently set at 22 per cent of all member states' dues, and voluntary contributions, which vary year to year, Bateman said.
While the voluntary contributions cannot be withheld, the Trump administration aims to divert the non-disbursed portion of the assessed dues to other foreign aid agencies, and argues that the structure of the appropriations bill passed by Congress allows it do so.
Other prominent voices have also joined the call for Trump to back away from his punitive measures against the WHO.
"Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said on Wednesday in a Twitter post. "Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them."
After the US, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the second largest donor to the WHO, accounting for almost 10 per cent of its funding with a US$531 million contribution. The foundation has also pledged US$100 million to help contain the coronavirus outbreak.
The US Chamber of Commerce, which includes among its 3 million members multinational manufacturing giants such as Ford and IBM, called the WHO "critical".
"The Chamber supports a reformed but functional World Health Organization, and US leadership and involvement are essential to ensuring its transparency and accountability going forward," the industry association said in a statement.
"However, cutting the WHO's funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in US interests given the organization's critical role assisting other countries - particularly in the developing world - in their response."
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