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Here’s How Congress Can Save the State Department

Here’s How Congress Can Save the State Department

Each week brings fresh reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department is a self-inflicted institutional disaster. A mass exodus of nonpartisan staff. Crippling proposed budget cuts, blessed by Tillerson. Near-total failure to install a leadership team (80-plus percent of bureaus lack even nominees to lead them). Empty offices, disempowered stand-in officials, and a demoralized, marginalized rank-and-file. There’s even talk of an abrupt “Rexit.” And then there are indignities, like President Donald Trump’s thanks to Russia for saving money by expelling American diplomats.

In short, Tillerson and the Trump administration — through action and inaction, word and deed — are downgrading American diplomatic capacity in ways that risk weakening America’s hand internationally for years to come. In a world where China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are poised to capitalize on U.S. retrenchment, and in which the next Islamic State or Ebola could already be out there percolating, that’s dangerous.

Congress needed to step in. And last week, it did — in a big way. After declaring Trump’s cuts “dead on arrival,” Senate appropriators sent forward a “foreign ops” bill with $11 billion more than Trump requested (albeit $1.9 billion less than last year). The markup included amendments designed to prevent the dismembering the State Department’s refugee and migration bureau or bulking up its policy planning staff to circumvent the rest of the bureaucracy.

The bill marks a significant step toward a more assertive legislative role in setting State Department priorities, with support from Republican and Democratic Senators alike. Now Congress needs to carry forward the momentum, on matters of both money and management, to ensure that a robust foreign affairs budget becomes law and to push the administration to either leave the tools of American diplomacy stronger than it found them, or simply do no harm.

Of course, nobody thinks the State Department is perfect as is. And in mid-September, Tillerson will report to Congress on his plans to reform and reorganize it. Where he makes a compelling case, Congress should be supportive, including of plans to carefully streamline bureaucratic bloat. But the Trump budget’s ideologically driven, slash first and ask questions later approach represents an altogether different spirit. And regrettably, some of Tillerson’s opening moves, including reported disengagement from much of the Department’s work, raise concerns that he may share that spirit — or at least be more interested in streamlining American diplomacy than strengthening it.

As the administration shifts gears to negotiate budget legislation and put forward plans for reorganization, here are a few suggestions for an assertive response:

Hold the line against massive cuts. The Senate last week took a significant step to kill the 30-percent budget cut it declared “dead on arrival.” But it needs to stay dead. House appropriators put forward a far lower number. The Senate mark likely represents a high-water mark as appropriations language makes its way into law, via conference or as part of a larger spending agreement to come. Congress has a scary amount on its plate in the next several months: tax reform, an eventual debt-ceiling hike, and now the fates of 800,000 young immigrants, as well as the budget. It’s going to require sustained, vocal, bipartisan vigilance to prevent devastating cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development from sneaking back into any final spending deal.

Bar the backdoor. Even if Congress rejects proposed cuts in legislation, some worry that the administration might be tempted to implement them unilaterally through the backdoor by simply not spending the money. In 1974, Congress prohibited President Richard Nixon from precisely that. The Supreme Court upheld the law the following year. And while an unnamed State Department official denied it on the record, rumors persist, and one former State Department budget expert speculated that workarounds exist. The administration might even want this fight (including before today’s very different Supreme Court) against wasteful spending. Senate appropriators recognized the risk, and included language making clear their expectations and the precedents behind them. Absent further assurances, Congress needs to do what it can to raise the political costs of disregarding appropriations law. Votes to confirm nominees such as Tillerson’s top management official, former Senate Budget Committee staffer Eric Ueland (labeled a budgetary “evil genius” by a Senate colleague), should depend on Tillerson’s and Ueland’s public commitment to foreswear impoundment.

But simply rejecting cuts isn’t enough to address the current and future management issues Tillerson has raised. Additional steps are needed.

Hold spending on Trump and Tillerson priorities to demand action on management issues. Having worked at both the State Department and the Senate committee that oversees it, I have seen how informal negotiations over the release of funds (putting “holds” on “notifications”) can be part of constructive consultations. Previous Congresses would hold up political appointee nominations, for reasons of principle or pique — but what do you do when the problem is an administration willfully starving the department of leadership? Congress needs to seek out points of leverage over an administration with unconventional priorities, be it arms deals or the very bureaucratic changes Tillerson has prioritized.

Tillerson has suggested that some freestanding special envoy offices belong within existing State Department bureaus. It’s a reasonable idea in many cases. But it only makes sense if those bureaus are actually staffed and empowered. Tillerson and Trump may or may be concerned about whether we have empowered envoys fighting for disability rights, against war crimes, or to address climate change, but Congress should be. At a minimum, might there be holds (written into legislative language if needed) that could block expenditures for the relocation of any special envoy to a position within an existing bureau until that bureau has a confirmed assistant secretary?

And as the administration engages Congress on the reorganization, it will also be important to seek a clearer answer to a very simple question: What is the “theory of the case” underlying this large-scale reorganization? What problem does this large-scale effort exist to fix? As one Senate committee staffer told me, Tillerson and his team have yet to offer a clear response.

Define an end strength for the total size America’s diplomatic corps, just like we do for the Marine Corps. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees already legislate the number of troops (or “end strength”) authorized to serve in each of America’s service branches. Why not legislate an end strength for the Foreign Service? Or mandate a minimum number for the entire State Department? Even legislating a ceiling (as the military does) rather than a floor would express the will of Congress. Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s amendment weighing in on the size of the policy planning staff was tightly targeted to forestall an attempt to create a handpicked cadre that Tillerson might use to marginalize the rest of the department. But, if Tillerson’s efforts to prune the workforce intensify, a broader directive as to the size of the department’s staff may be called for. Under those circumstances, it would be up to Tillerson or his successor to make his case directly to Congress for large-scale changes. Reportedly, Tillerson began talking about an eight-percent staff cut long before seriously reviewing the State Department’s missions or requirements — a technique perhaps common in hostile corporate takeovers, but unwise for an irreplaceable public institution. Such tight Congressional strictures are far from ideal. But they could prove a necessary response under exceptional circumstances.

Last week’s legislative deal making points to the promise of a more fluid environment on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But nobody knows yet what, if anything, this will mean for American diplomacy. The Trump administration, minus former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s bureaucratic “deconstruction” and personnel obstruction, could accept defeat, abandon its cuts, and move to shore up the department’s managerial gaps — under Tillerson or a successor. Or, it could be as bad as it has been.

Congress needs to be ready to respond to both outcomes: ready to say yes, and just as ready to say a firm no.

What happens next matters a great deal — far beyond Trump’s legacy, or Tillerson’s — because each president inherits the State Department his predecessors built: the platforms in 190-plus countries, the functioning institutions, and the pipeline of highly trained, hardworking public servants stationed in dangerous places to keep the country safe. Institutions can be unraveled overnight, but take years to build and rebuild.

One of the surprising insights for many first-time foreign policy professionals is that often the how (resources, capabilities, people, and execution) matters just as much to the final outcome as the what (elegant policy whitepapers, shuttle diplomacy, etc.). Without a how, you’re sunk before you even start.

Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, succinctly captured the stakes back when he was the Middle East’s combatant commander: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

In normal times, Congress is a vital partner to presidents in sustaining America’s capacity to lead. These aren’t normal times. Congress: America’s diplomats are depending on you.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images