Pompeo’s Pledge to Lift Hiring Freeze at State Department Hits Big Snag

Diplomats who welcomed the new secretary of state are now feeling let down.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his swearing-in at the State Department in Washington on May 2. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his swearing-in at the State Department in Washington on May 2. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his swearing-in at the State Department in Washington on May 2. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Less than a month ago, career U.S. diplomats were cheering their new boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for lifting a hiring freeze at the State Department that had demoralized many of them and come to symbolize a leadership that didn’t value their work.

Now, some of them are feeling betrayed.

Employees have recently been told that the change only applies to a sliver of open positions — those vacated after Dec. 31, 2017, according to several State Department officials and congressional staffers tracking the issue.

Less than a month ago, career U.S. diplomats were cheering their new boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for lifting a hiring freeze at the State Department that had demoralized many of them and come to symbolize a leadership that didn’t value their work.

Now, some of them are feeling betrayed.

Employees have recently been told that the change only applies to a sliver of open positions — those vacated after Dec. 31, 2017, according to several State Department officials and congressional staffers tracking the issue.

The majority of the positions in understaffed offices — those vacated during a push by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to cull the ranks of the State Department in a structural overhaul last year — will not be filled, the officials said.

“The guidance people are getting is basically, the jobs that were vacant pre-2017? Forget about them,” one of them said.

“Now that the dust has settled, folks are realizing [the lifting of the freeze] is not quite as good as it seems,” another said.

The officials said the reason was largely bureaucratic: The State Department must still adhere to a cap on new hires dating back to the summer of 2017, when Tillerson and the White House Office of Management and Budget agreed to cut the workforce by 8 percent.

Before he was fired, Tillerson said he had achieved about half of the proposed cuts, or 4 percent.

A State Department spokeswoman confirmed that positions vacated before the end of last year would not be filled under current congressional spending requirements, appearing to indicate that Congress is to blame.

“The Department is using all flexibility and latitude possible to ensure that all critical priorities are met within the FY 2018 funding levels provided by the Congress,” the spokeswoman said. “The use of such flexibilities may require further consultation with Congress as it considers the FY 2019 budget.”

The snag underscores how complicated it is to unravel some of Tillerson’s most controversial measures. But some officials said they held Pompeo responsible.  

“Either you know that this was a false win or you didn’t understand the hurdles that had been set up by Tillerson. It’s either one of the two. Choose,” one of the officials said. “I don’t believe that Pompeo can’t get on the phone and fix this.”

Pompeo announced the lifting of the freeze last month in an email to the diplomatic corps.

“The Department’s workforce is our most valuable asset,” he wrote. “By resuming hiring of the most gifted and qualified individuals, we will ensure that we have the right people with the right skills working to advance our national interests.”

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

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