The Cable

Congress Set to Grill Rex Tillerson on Massive Budget Cuts to His Own Department

Democratic lawmakers plan to “come out swinging” in Tillerson’s testimonies.

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will run the congressional gauntlet this week, facing a hostile Congress to defend the Trump administration’s controversial diplomacy and foreign aid budget already deemed “dead on arrival.”

Tillerson will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, then the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. Before all four panels, Tillerson will face a wall of Democrats seething at how the administration has handled foreign policy so far, multiple congressional sources tell Foreign Policy.

In addition to alienating traditional NATO allies and scuppering future trade ties with Asia, the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to State and related agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal year 2018 — cuts which Tillerson has enthusiastically backed.

“Democrats are going to come out swinging,” said one Democratic Congressional staffer.

At the top of the agenda for Tillerson’s multiple hearings is the Trump administration’s controversial international affairs budget, which as FP reported, would gut State Department and USAID funding and potentially even tee up a plan to fold that agency into the State Department entirely.

“It’s dead on arrival, it’s not going to happen, it would be a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, said in February. “This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk, and it’s going nowhere,” he said.

In response to the reports, hundreds of business leaders from across the country penned a letter last month to Tillerson urging the administration to support a “strong international affairs budget” to shore up U.S. business interests abroad.

Some Democratic members are also fuming at the silence they’ve received from Tillerson, particularly amid reports the former ExxonMobil chief plans to reorganize the State Department.

“We have made formal requests to the State Department to brief us on the reorganization. They have not responded,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Monday.

“We have briefed committee staff on the department’s plans to improve efficiencies,” a State Department official told FP in response to Cardin’s remarks. “We continue to engage with Congress as we consider options for positioning the Department to best advance U.S. goals and priorities,” the official said.

Cardin blamed what he saw as the State Department’s lack of response on all its empty desks. Key senior- and mid-level management positions, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state, remain unfilled nearly five months into the Trump administration, which many experts and former officials warn undermines the State Department’s ability to function. Lawmakers Tillerson will face this week fret that the empty positions are akin to “letting our foreign service wither on the vine,” another congressional staffer said.

“We talk about this regularly in our committee. This is unprecedented in the fact that we haven’t gotten nominations,” Cardin said.

On June 5, Trump lambasted Democrats on Twitter for “taking forever to approve [his] people, including Ambassadors.” His tweet vexed Senate Republicans and Democrats alike.

Trump has so far nominated 110 people of 559 positions for his administration overall, far fewer than the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, or George H.W. Bush administrations had done at this point in their terms, and the dearth is especially evident in Foggy Bottom.

There are four ambassadors currently pending confirmation, all under review in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All undersecretary and assistant secretary of state appointments remain unfilled.

“It’s hard to hold up a nomination that hasn’t been made,” Cardin said.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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