Some members of Congress don't really believe the United States owes the United Nations a lot of money - $1.5 billion by the UN's tally. So a few concerned lawmakers asked the federal General Accounting Office to prepare a study of the world body's financial needs and the US debt.
Sure enough, the GAO found a widening gap between UN expenses, particularly for peacekeeping, and resources. And nonpayment of dues - not just by the US, but most prominently by it - is a big factor.
The GAO also found that even if the US paid the full amount under consideration by Congress this year, it would still come up well over $200 million short of settling accounts.
But the prospects of Congress meeting even a part of the US obligation is cloudy as ever. In the latest stalling tactic, anti-UN forces in Congress have made a $475 million payment, included in a large appropriations bill, contingent on a reduction in the US share of UN expenses - to 22 percent from the current 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the US is attempting to spearhead efforts to reform UN administrative structures.
And, somewhat ironically, a delinquent Washington turns instinctively to the UN for multilateral support to prevent full-blown war in Kosovo, deal with nuclear proliferation in South Asia, and tackle other urgent matters. The huge back-dues bill overhangs every effort to exert American influence within the organization.
Washington's self-inflicted wounds could soon include loss of the US vote in the UN General Assembly - a distinction reserved for countries whose debt to the UN exceeds their contributions of the last two years.
Perhaps the US can get the General Assembly to grant it an exception to this rule, on grounds that its failure to pay is beyond its control. (Who, after all, can control the die-hard UN bashers in Congress?) If that happens, the world's only superpower could join the ranks of fellow debtors Comoros, Liberia, and Tajikistan.