U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adjusts his glasses as he speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adjusts his glasses as he speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Virginia Mayo/AP

Senators Press State Dept. to Drop Hiring Freeze and Shine Light on Reorg Plan

Reforms could hurt 'America's Foreign Service and Civil Service professionals' and put diplomacy at risk, one letter says.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ongoing but still vague redesign plan for the State Department drew fire this week from two groups of senators led by Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.

In a Tuesday letter to Tillerson’s deputy, John Sullivan, Cardin teamed with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., to express concerns about harm to national security from the effort at efficiency, requesting that State “reassess the assumptions guiding the reform effort, end its counter-productive hiring freeze, and strengthen its transparency with Congress.”

The bipartisan letter acknowledged the value of efficiency improvement efforts and praised Tillerson’s planned reforms to information technology, human resources and procurement systems. “We support your efforts to streamline Special Envoy and Special Representative positions,” they added.

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But they warned that the hiring freeze, planned budget cuts and the overall reorganization plan could be “adversely affecting America’s Foreign Service and Civil Service professionals and putting our nation’s ability to carry out diplomacy at risk.”

They challenged assurances given by Tillerson in a recent speech that reduced overseas conflict will reduce the need for U.S. diplomatic personnel. “We see no evidence that there will be a decline in the need for our nation’s diplomatic capabilities,” Cardin and Young wrote. “On the contrary—in virtually every region of the world—we see the need for capable and effective American leadership and diplomacy increasing.”

The lawmakers underlined “the essential role our diplomats play in facilitating trade and investment opportunities for American businesses abroad, promoting human rights, addressing new security concerns, and strengthening America’s alliances that serve as an indispensable foundation for our national security and prosperity.”

The few briefings from Tillerson’s team on the redesign effort, they added, “have provided little additional insight … and have raised more questions than they have answered.” They asked Sullivan for a new, more detailed update.

On Wednesday morning, Cardin broadened the warning about hampering the Foreign Service in a letter to Tillerson signed with nine other Democrats on the Foreign Relations panel, requesting a briefing on the hiring freeze by Dec. 20.

“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must be a full partner in the development of the department’s reorganization effort, budget and spending cuts, workforce changes and other significant plans,” said the letter, which was not signed by panel Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

“Without a major shift in the communication and partnership by the department, we are concerned that you will be unable to adequately support the thousands of employees who have committed their lives to public service to advance the long-standing principles of this country,” the Democrats wrote. “We intend to explore our legislative options to address these concerns in upcoming State Department authorization bills and other appropriate vehicles, but would prefer to work together with you and the department to address our common goals of building an efficient and effective State Department for the twenty-first century.”

Declaring themselves “puzzled” by the lack of detail in the reorganization plan so far, they asked for clarification on improving transparency in the coming change process, a timeline for the reorganization, plans for filling senior vacancies, and a justification for the hiring freeze and projected personnel losses.

Speculation, they continued, suggests a planned realignment not just at overseas facilities but at Main State as well, with less importance being placed on units devoted to democracy abroad, human rights, labor, refugees and migration. “We have heard rumors that the department is considering ‘hybrid embassy’ or ‘regional embassy’ models and reorganizing embassies by ‘function’—yet, the department has provided few details,” the Democrats wrote.

Longtime State employees, they added, “have been shut out of career development programs, merit based promotions, and lateral transfers while absorbing the increased workload due to staff shortages caused by the hiring freeze.” Hence, the senators encouraged “more involvement of these employees—relying on outside consultants is not an appropriate model for reforming a diplomatic institution.”

Joining Cardin on the letter were Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Tom Udall, D-N.M.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Tuesday was asked about the two senators’ letter to Sullivan, which she had not read. “Congress deserves the answers to very important and legitimate questions,” she said, adding that “we are committed to more transparency with the redesign process.”

Tillerson is planning a town hall meeting on the overall reorganization process, Nauert added, and State is “recommitting ourselves” to having “a better process where we communicate more thoroughly."