'Decimated' By Trump, State Dept. Is Falling Short of Some Key Biden Goals
The department is rebuilding, looking to fill vacancies and budget shortfalls.
The Biden administration is slowly making progress in rebuilding the State Department after it was “decimated” by its predecessor, a top official told lawmakers on Tuesday, but lingering shortcomings are still preventing the agency from meeting the president’s goals.
State is adding new staff and providing new opportunities for existing employees to grow their skillsets, Brian McKeon, the department’s deputy secretary for management and resources, told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, as it looks to backfill vacancies that sat empty during the Trump administration. At a more than 10% cut in four years, State saw the second-biggest workforce decline under President Trump, trailing only the Education Department.
The department is focusing on its Consular Affairs office, which suffered particularly severe losses as it is largely fee-funded and revenues dropped precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Congress provided some direct appropriations to offset the shortfalls, State is only now digging out from its piled up work as travel resumes and the office is restoring its coffers. Consular Affairs, which is responsible for issuing passports and visas, as well protecting Americans overseas, still has staffing shortages, McKeon said, but it is “trying to rebuild.”
State surged staff to Passport Services last summer when the backlog neared 2 million and the wait time for non-expedited processing was as high as 18 weeks. The routine processing time is now down to 11 weeks on the upper end.
The department is also working to staff up internally at its Refugee Admissions Program, as well as to fund private sector partners that went out of business under Trump due to a lack of resources. Still, McKeon said the office lacks the resources necessary to meet Biden’s goal of resettling 125,000 refugees in fiscal 2022.
“We have a lot of rebuilding to do because the program was decimated by the previous administration,” McKeon said. “The president has given us an ambitious target. We’re not going to hit it this year but we’ve got to make progress so we can hit it in the next couple years.”
In its fiscal 2023 budget, the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is requesting $6.3 billion. That would nearly triple the agency’s budget from 2021. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency that conducts interviews of refugee applicants overseas, is in the midst of hiring thousands of employees after seeing its budget triple. McKeon said those new resources would help meet Biden’s goal down the road.
The administration has vowed to take in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Afghanis, but many of those will enter through special processes not part of the regular refugee program. While the administration has struggled to get its Afghan evacuee initiative off the ground, McKeon said its work has helped rebuild the network of resettlement organizations.
State Secretary Antony Blinken recently told lawmakers his department has already onboarded 179 FSOs this year and is on pace for its largest annual hiring total in a decade. Last week, State announced it was overhauling its hiring process for FSOs to deemphasize the importance of the written test that all applicants must take in hopes of widening its talent pool. State has also created an “employee retention unit,” which McKeon said would enable the department to better understand why people stay and leave as it drafts its first department-wide retention strategy. State is also boosting its professional development opportunities, incentivizing or requiring trainings on areas such as cybersecurity, STEM, health and climate issues.
As State looks to boost its workforce, it is also weighing when and how to deploy employees to dangerous situations. The department is planning to return employees to Ukraine—who evacuated in February—by the end of the month, McKeon said. It has substantially “skinnied down” its presence in Shanghai as the region has entered strict pandemic lockdowns. McKeon acknowledged some State personnel in China have been forced into “fever hospitals” after testing positive for COVID-19 and, in one case, an employee was nearly separated from a child after the child tested positive.