Will Comptroller Sue Blinken to Force Release of UNRWA Funds?

Earlier this year, Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put a hold on $75 million in food aid that was already appropriated for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Risch wants the Biden administration to certify that UNRWA “is not affiliated with U.S. designated foreign terrorist organizations and does not support anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

But as Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, wrote last month in an op-ed in The Hill:

“These and other conditions are already requirements UNRWA must abide by in its framework agreement with the State Department.” 

Palestinian-American activists are pointing the finger at Risch as the one guy in Washington who is holding up the food aid to the Palestinians.

But there’s another guy, as Senator Risch is quick to point out – President Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Blinken can blow through Risch’s hold and release the funds before the September 30 deadline.

And if he doesn’t, there’s another guy who can force him to do it – Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

The Impoundment Control Act empowers the Comptroller General to bring a civil action against any federal agency that is illegally holding up appropriated aid.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro

Or as Section 687 of the law reads, in part: 

“If budget authority is required to be made available for obligation and such budget authority is not made available for obligation, the Comptroller General is hereby expressly empowered, through attorneys of his own selection, to bring a civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to require such budget authority to be made available for obligation, and such court is hereby expressly empowered to enter in such civil action, against any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States, any decree, judgment, or order which may be necessary or appropriate to make such budget authority available for obligation.”

In the fifty year history of the law, there has reportedly been only one such lawsuit brought (Staats v. Lynn (D.D.C. No. 75-0551). 

The case had its origins in September 1974 when President Gerald R. Ford ordered the rescission of more than $264 million in contract authority for a federal housing program. 

Congress refused to accept the rescission. And in April 1975, because the administration did not release the funds, then Comptroller General Elmer Staats filed suit against Ford. 

A number of constitutional issues – is the Comptroller part of the legislative branch, or the executive? If executive, can the executive sue itself? Is there a case or controversy? –  were raised during the litigation. 

But the case never reached trial because in October 1975, Housing Secretary Carla Hills announced the reactivation of the housing program at issue in the case and release of funds for it. The contending parties agreed to drop the suit, leaving the constitutional issues unresolved. 

We reached out to the Comptroller Dodaro’s office to see if they were aware of the brewing controversy over the unreleased UNRWA aid and whether or not they are preparing a lawsuit.

“GAO has not taken civil action in this matter,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office wrote back. “We have ongoing report-related work on humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. We will be examining assistance the U.S. government provided from Fiscal Years 2021-2023, including the $75 million in assistance for UNRWA. The work has just begun and we do not yet have a time frame established for publishing it.”

We also reached out to the director of UNRWA’s Washington office, William Deere.

“We deeply appreciate the Administration’s reengagement with UNRWA and the additional funding provided by Congress, a recognition of the impact of rising food and transportation costs on our life-saving humanitarian operations” Deere said. “As there may have been only one case brought under the Impoundment Control Act, that is a sign of how seriously the executive branch takes its responsibility. We await a positive outcome so that people in Gaza can continue to receive food, which to many vulnerable Palestine refugees in the Strip is a lifeline.”

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