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State Department’s plan for staff cuts causing new worry in Congress

A growing, bipartisan number of lawmakers are expressing alarm over anticipated personnel cuts at the State Department, saying they have contributed to plummeting morale and will undermine diplomacy and foreign policy for years to come.

In the latest example, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday to lift a hiring freeze and promote experienced Foreign Service officers, requesting in a letter more details about Tillerson’s reorganization plan.

Citing reports of declining morale, recruitment and retention levels, the senators wrote that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex, global crises are growing externally.” Tillerson’s management decisions, they say, “threaten to undermine the long-term health and effectiveness of American diplomacy.”

The letter reflects mounting concern on Capitol Hill and among foreign policy experts about the loss of experienced diplomats under the Trump administration. On Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the State Department’s cuts are endangering the nation.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) called the cuts a risk to national security and a “high-level decapitation of leadership.”

“Folks, this situation is alarming,” Cardin said. “We put our country in danger.”

The Office of Management and Budget has directed the State Department to slash its almost 76,000 employees by 8 percent. To meet that goal beyond normal attrition, the State Department is offering buyouts and early retirement incentives of $25,000 — before taxes — to the first 641 eligible people who sign up by April 30. The buyouts are being directed by the White House, not the seventh floor of the Harry S. Truman Building where Tillerson sits.

Tillerson, who has proposed cutting almost 30 percent of his budget, has described his “redesign” of the State Department as his most important task. He has disputed accounts of low morale in Foggy Bottom, telling Bloomberg News recently, “I’m not seeing it, I’m not getting it.”

But anecdotes abound in the agency’s halls. Former ambassadors recalled to Washington feel humiliated about being assigned menial jobs such as reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests to clear a large backlog. Competition for overseas jobs has become fiercer as more young diplomats seek to escape the turmoil for the next few years.

Many employees are still bristling over Trump’s assertion this month that while a number of key positions at the State Department still have no nominees to fill them, “I’m the only one that matters” in formulating foreign policy.

Job opportunities also are shrinking at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which recently notified 97 applicants for overseas postings that the positions had been canceled, a tacit admission that the hiring freeze will be in place for a long time.

Nevertheless, State Department figures show that the number of employees remains about the same as it was when Tillerson took the reins in early February. Two-thirds of the 76,000 employees are locally employed in 276 missions around the world, leaving almost 14,000 Foreign Service officers and almost 11,000 civil service employees.

Although the hiring freeze is still in effect, Tillerson has mitigated the impact by approving more than 2,300 exemptions to the freeze as of late October. Among the hires are about 300 new Foreign Service officers and almost 150 civil service employees.

The numbers underscore a flight of experienced leadership. Barbara Stephenson, who heads the American Foreign Service Association union, wrote in a recent newsletter that senior leaders are departing at a “dizzying speed.”

Among the figures she cited, three of the five career ambassadors, the highest rank for diplomats, have quit or retired since Tillerson took over. The number of career ministers, the next level down, also has decreased, from 33 to 19. The next-level ministers are down by 62 diplomats, to 369, just since Labor Day, “and are still falling,” she wrote.

Stephenson also said that fewer Foreign Service officers are being recruited, and far fewer are taking the entrance exam, although State Department officials attribute this to an improving economy rather than a lack of interest.

Stephenson thinks the damage will be felt for years.

“The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight,” she wrote.

This is not the first time the State Department has been hit with big staff cuts. Under President Bill Clinton, the department cut more than 2,000 employees, largely by shuttering the U.S. Information Agency, and closed consulates in 26 foreign cities. USAID, which runs foreign aid programs, closed 23 overseas missions.

According to congressional aides who deal with State Department operations, the goal is again to reduce the ranks by 2,000 people, a proposed cut that has held steady since Trump came to office and before Tillerson took over. But the latest round of staff cuts is far less transparent than previous efforts, with almost no details provided to Congress, they say.

“It’s being done behind the scenes,” said one aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer frank insight about what they are hearing from State Department employees who don’t normally speak to Congress. “They dismiss the legitimacy of Foreign Service officers. They started working at breaking down morale from the get-go. There’s not a lot of trust there.”

In their letter to Tillerson, Shaheen and McCain cited the union’s statistics to paint a picture of a State Department floundering. Shaheen sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and McCain heads the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Taken together,” they wrote, “questionable management practices at the Department of State; the attitudes of some in the Administration on the value of diplomacy; declining morale, recruitment and retention; the lack of experienced leadership to further the strength and longevity of our nation’s diplomatic corps; and reports of American diplomacy becoming less effective paint a disturbing picture.”