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With State Department Under Fire, Lawmakers Form a Diplomacy Caucus

The bipartisan House move seeks to bolster support for U.S. diplomats as Ukraine impeachment inquiry puts heat on the foreign service.

U.S. diplomats William Taylor and George Kent testify at House impeachment hearing
Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William Taylor testify before Congress during the impeachment inquiry in Washington on Nov. 13. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are forming a new caucus aimed at strengthening support for U.S. diplomats as the State Department finds itself at the center of a fraught political battle over the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. 

Four representatives—two Democrats and two Republicans—are expected to announce the creation of a Diplomacy Caucus this week, three of the members behind the caucus tell Foreign Policy. The caucus, they say, will bring together members of the House of Representatives interested in crafting new legislation to strengthen U.S. diplomatic institutions and showcase bipartisan congressional support for an embattled diplomatic corps. 

Since the beginning of our country’s history, thousands of Americans have put their lives on the line in the name of furthering our nation’s diplomatic mission and hundreds have made the ultimate sacrifice,said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the four co-founders of the caucus. Before joining Congress, Fitzpatrick was an FBI official who alongside with diplomats in U.S. embassies overseas. This caucus will provide a stronger voice for them within Congress and help to make the challenges they and their families face a little bit easier,” he said. 

Democrats involved in the caucus have tied its founding to the ongoing impeachment investigation, centered on whether President Donald Trump improperly withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to investigate one of his Democratic presidential rivals. Diplomats used to operating behind the scenes found themselves in a national spotlight last month as they testified as fact witnesses in bitterly partisan public impeachment hearings. Republicans decried the process as unfounded and unfair, and Trump has vehemently denied wrongdoing and labeled the impeachment process a “hoax.” Some diplomats compelled to testify, including former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, were publicly disparaged by the president and his allies.  

“With America’s diplomacy and American diplomats at the center of a lot of the Ukraine scandal, the public getting a sense of what these people do in terms of serving the country, we thought this would be an optimal time to start a bipartisan group that could support American foreign policy,” said Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, another co-founder of the caucus. 

There are hundreds of caucuses in the House of Representatives, ranging from powerful fixtures that drive major agendas on Capitol Hill, such as the Congressional Black Caucus or the Freedom Caucus, to the small and obscure, such as the Congressional Boating Caucus and the Congressional Battery Energy Storage Caucus. The caucuses themselves have little authority or legal sway, but provide a platform for members with similar interests and agendas to collaborate and eventually craft legislation on the issue in question.

The other founding members of the Diplomacy Caucus are Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Republican Rep. Ann Wagner, who served as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush.  

Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, welcomed the creation of such a caucus. “With the State Department under attack and in crisis, our diplomatic professionals—both civil service and foreign service—need to know there is broad support for their mission on Capitol Hill as well as an appreciation for the sacrifices they make in order to keep our country strong and secure,” she told Foreign Policy. “I hope the Diplomacy Caucus will help reassure them of the support they have.”

Andrew Albertson, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Foreign Policy for America, said “there are a number of projects in the works” when asked about tangible legislation the caucus could focus on. He said some have made the case for “rewriting” the Foreign Service Act of 1980—the legislation that helped craft the current structure of the foreign service—to modernize the department, with an eye toward emulating the U.S. military’s approach to professional development and education. He also said the caucus could take up initiatives to help recruit and retain top talent at the department, as well as legislation to better support the spouses and family of diplomats serving overseas. Such reforms aren’t headline-grabbers, experts concede, but they say they are important for the day-to-day work of diplomats. 

Trump has repeatedly tried to slash the budget for diplomacy and foreign aid during his three years in office, though those efforts were rebuffed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The impeachment investigation, which revealed how the president’s allies ousted Yovanovitch from her post as ambassador in Kyiv after a smear campaign, has also demoralized the diplomatic corps.

But Albertson said the problems dogging the State Department go beyond Trump. “The current weakness of the State Department isn’t just the fault of this White House or the last two Secretaries of State. For decades now, we’ve been asking more and more of our extraordinary diplomats, like Marie Yovanovitch, while giving them less and less of what they need to be successful,” he said. 

“I think there’s great value in having the voice of this Caucus, speaking both to our diplomats who may be looking for leadership from within the United States, and to our partners, allies, and even foes overseas, to remind them that diplomacy is still a core tenet of American foreign policy, despite rhetoric coming from the [White House],” Cicilline told Foreign Policy.

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

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