The Shutdown Has Foggy Bottom in a Funk

While diplomats file for unemployment benefits and seek school lunches for their children, Mike Pompeo is making unpaid workers organize a big ambassadors’ conference in D.C.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center) visits Egypt on Jan. 10. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (center) visits Egypt on Jan. 10. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Diplomats are filing for unemployment benefits. Unpaid employees are working overtime to prepare a massive ambassadors’ conference. A U.S. consulate in Europe is running out of toilet paper.

The partial government shutdown—now set to be the longest shutdown in U.S. history—is fraying the seams of the State Department as a skeleton crew of demoralized and unpaid workers puts in long hours to cover the gaps left by furloughed colleagues.

Like other federal workers, State Department employees and contractors are bearing the brunt of the political impasse in Washington, centered on President Donald Trump’s fierce fight with Congress to partially fund the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Outside of national security priorities and work that protects U.S. citizens abroad, much of the day-to-day work of diplomacy has largely ground to a halt in Foggy Bottom and at U.S. diplomatic outposts around the world.

Around 42 percent of State Department employees in the United States and 26 percent of U.S. employees posted abroad have been furloughed, according to data from the State Department. (According to the department, most locally employed staff overseas aren’t subject to furlough due to local labor laws preventing unpaid work.) Meanwhile, Pompeo, on a multicountry tour of the Middle East, is being shepherded around by dozens of diplomats and staff who are working without a paycheck.

Like workers at other federal agencies, current and former State Department officials are scraping together money and support where they can for furloughed colleagues, some of whom live paycheck to paycheck and fear missing rent or mortgage payments.

Some bureaus are setting up rotations for employees on and off furlough to spread the money from their dwindling coffers. A group of current and former officials has started pooling money together to buy groceries for their colleagues who are running out of money. Others have started fundraisers for janitors and other lower-paid contractors who staff the department’s Washington headquarters; as contractors, they won’t receive any back pay that federal employees might receive at the end of the shutdown. Still other employees are sharing information on how to talk to credit card companies as bank accounts dwindle and bills go unpaid or on résumé-building tips for contractors who have lost their jobs in the shutdown.

At least one big initiative is still on track, which has angered some officials in Foggy Bottom. The State Department has decided to move forward with a major conference for all U.S. chiefs of mission and ambassadors abroad—there are 188—who will descend on Washington from Jan. 15 to 18 for a slew of meetings and receptions. Organizing the conference is a massive logistical undertaking, and bureaus at the State Department are pulling in furloughed employees to work overtime, with no pay, to set up the conference.

“It’s in poor taste and counterproductive to organize … while the people who organize it are worried about their next paycheck,” vented one State Department official. The official described how a furloughed colleague is preparing to apply for unemployment benefits and request reduced school lunch prices for their child as they run out of money.

Ambassadors have also been invited to glitzy cocktail receptions at four-star hotels, put on by outside organizations, including the Business Council for International Understanding—though the State Department has no involvement in organizing or funding these events.

“It’s a massive logistical undertaking for unpaid workers,” another U.S. official said. “Not to mention terrible optics.”

This is an internal working event, and we are working to minimize the costs as responsible stewards of our taxpayer dollars,” a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy in an email response. The spokesman noted travel for conference was arranged and funded prior to the government shutdown.

The spokesperson called the timing of the conference “crucial to the safety, security, and prosperity of the United States” and added: “Given that the Senate has just confirmed 23 ambassadors, this conference is particularly important and timely in helping them get off to the right start as they assume their duties immediately.”

In an email to State Department employees on Thursday obtained by FP, Pompeo thanked employees for their dedication to the job amid the shutdown and reiterated the importance to move forward with the conference.

“Bringing together the men and women who lead our overseas diplomatic missions is essential to successfully achieving our unified mission of advancing America’s foreign policy,” he wrote.

Pompeo also cited Trump’s desire to build a wall in justifying the shutdown.

“I realize the lapse in appropriations adds even more challenges and complexity, both professionally and personally,” he wrote. “But we face a serious humanitarian and security crisis, and the President is working to secure our southern border and bring reforms that will ensure the safety and security of the American people.” (Though arrests of people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally hit a 46-year low in 2017.)

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats overseas describe embassies whose day-to-day functions and public engagement have largely ground to a halt. Emblazoned across the website of every U.S. embassy abroad is the message: “Due to a lapse in appropriations, website updates will be limited until full operations resume.”

At one major U.S. consulate in Northern Europe, employees were told that the consulate has only nine days of toilet paper left, according to one U.S. diplomatic source, illustrative of the myriad minor challenges embassies face following a prolonged shutdown.

Pompeo, in his email to employees, thanked them for working through the furlough without any pay. “I am grateful for everyone’s efforts — those of you who are benched due to the furlough, and those who remain in the office without a paycheck,” he wrote.

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