The Cable

Lawmakers Slam Tillerson’s Bungled State Department Reforms

There's growing concern on the Hill that the secretary of state is mangling American diplomacy.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before  a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Oct. 30, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Oct. 30, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A growing bipartisan group of top lawmakers are frustrated with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to reform the State Department, questioning his fitness for leadership and leaving the already embattled former oil executive in a politically precarious position.

“Tillerson has not been an effective voice to represent the State Department through reorganization,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Wednesday.

A day before, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of Tillerson’s closest allies on the Hill, blasted the secretary of state for bungling the proposed State Department redesign, ostensibly meant to streamline staff and boost efficiency.

“I don’t think they are anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) wrote a letter to Tillerson expressing “deep reservations” about his management decisions, including maintaining a hiring freeze during the overhaul, pushing out top career officials, and curbing promotions for those who stay. Under Tillerson, the State Department has hemorrhaged top talent and temporarily cut recruitment programs to fill the void amid plummeting morale.

The trends “paint a disturbing picture,” the senators wrote.

Tillerson has long drawn fire for his handling of the department — hand-wringing at his seeming disdain for U.S. diplomats has become a staple in press coverage — but criticism from top Republicans has been rare until now.

That underscores growing congressional concern and frustration over the Trump administration’s handling of the State Department and the place of diplomacy in achieving U.S. foreign-policy goals. And it comes amid swirling rumors that Tillerson could be replaced by Mike Pompeo, currently CIA director and a former congressman from Kansas.

Trump himself has compounded the State Department’s woes, shutting it out from key deliberations on foreign policy and undercutting his own secretary of state on North Korea and the Gulf diplomatic crisis. Trump defended leaving dozens of top State Department posts empty by saying “I’m the only one who matters” in a recent interview on Fox News.

Tillerson started the redesign process early on in his tenure to make the department more efficient and cut out needless bureaucracy and redundant roles, beginning with hiring corporate consultants to run a “listening tour” of the department’s employees to gain their feedback on how best to reform. But much of the department has been cut out of the process, multiple current and former State Department officials tell FP, leaving many career employees in the dark on Tillerson’s final redesign recommendations.

Tillerson’s repeated insistence that the process is “employee-driven” has “become somewhat of a running joke here,” one senior State Department official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lawmakers are in the dark, too. McCain and Shaheen complained in their letter that Congress had not been consulted on the details of the reorganization plan nor the rationale for some of Tillerson’s management decisions.

A State Department spokesperson declined to respond to the senators’ criticisms. “The Secretary has said on many occasions that he will advocate for any resources or reforms America’s diplomats need to do their jobs,” the spokesperson said.

Cardin also said the redesign isn’t running on schedule, in part because “there is not clear authority” between the State Department, White House, and Office of Management and Budget on who manages what parts of the process.

In the meantime, Cardin said it would take Foggy Bottom a long time to recover from losing top talent — and losing out on new recruits. Between October 2016 and October 2017, the number of applicants for the foreign service has dropped by one-third, according to the American Foreign Service Association, sparking concern the administration was scaring off new talent.

“It takes a long time to rebuild that capacity. Just as dangerous, we have good people who wonder whether this is a career they want to go into,” Cardin said.

Update, Nov. 15, 2017: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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