Sun, Oct 09, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Congressional oversight of the AIT

By Peter Chen 陳正義

There was a minor scandal a decade or two ago, when the AIT’s visa “telex” fees, running several hundred thousand US dollars annually, were misappropriated into a slush fund for miscellaneous AIT expenses with little oversight and opaque accountability. Indeed, the US Department of State inspector-general reported in 2012 that the institute still received US$21 million from retained visa fees, a third of its annual operating budget.

The report said: “In the absence of the routine internal controls that operate inside the department, financial management of these funds is left in large measure to the experience and goodwill of the personnel responsible for management within the AIT itself.” Apparently, these problems have been remedied, but the episodes heightened sensitivities in both US Congress and the department to an incipient culture of unaccountability at the AIT.

In the Formosan Association for Public Affairs’ library, we have a copy of a letter from then-US secretary of state Cyrus Vance to then-US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Frank Church dated Feb. 23, 1979, which tried to assuage Church’s concerns about the proposed American Institute in Taiwan’s accountability.

In it, Vance explained that “because [the AIT] is not an agency or instrumentality of the [US] government, and because its trustees are not officers of the United States, it would not be appropriate for the Senate to advise and consent to the appointment of trustees or officers.”

Instead, Vance pledged that “the names of prospective trustees and officers will be forwarded to the [US Senate] Foreign Relations Committee. If the committee expresses reservations about a prospective trustee or officer, we will undertake to discuss and resolve the matter fully with the committee before proceeding.”

However, to our knowledge, the department has not ever forwarded such names to the senate.

Under the US constitution, it is the president’s duty to nominate, “by and with the advice and consent of the senate, ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls.” Therefore, given that the AIT — by definition — performs (at the direction of the department) all the functions of an embassy, that its director is the equivalent of an ambassador, and that its consular officers all have been commissioned by the senate as consuls,” we at the Formosan Association for Public Affairs believe that making the AIT’s senior appointments subject to US senate confirmation is constitutionally desirable. At the very least, the senate must demand that the department honor Vance’s 1979 pledge to consult with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on all the institutes top appointments, including, at least, the directors in Washington and Taipei, the chairman and the board members.

This simple adjustment would surely have an enduring and positive influence on the execution of US laws and policies with regard to Taiwan and reassure concerned citizens in the US that constitutionally appropriate congressional oversight of foreign relations is secure.

Peter Chen is the president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs.

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