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Cardin Delivers Senate Speech on State of State Department Concerns

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday regarding ongoing personnel, management and mission statement issues at the State Department. The following remarks were prepared for delivery:

“M. President. I come to the floor today to share my deep concern over the current state of America’s global diplomacy.  A multitude of decisions made by this administration in the last year have caused me to pause and repeatedly ask ‘why?’, but in no area have I been more perplexed than the actions that have taken place at the State Department.

“Ever since this Secretary of State took the helm, there has been a slow, unexplained erosion of the Department, and along with it, the values that it promotes and the vital role it plays around the world.  By now, many are familiar with the list of concerns that seasoned diplomats, national security officials, and members of this body have been raising with increasing alarm over the last weeks and months:

  • More than 30 key Ambassadorships remain without a named nominee;
  • Dozens of important senior-level posts remain vacant;
  • Career officials are being cut out of important policy decisions—or overruled by leadership including sometimes even on legal issues.
  • The Foreign Service is being hollowed out, with significantly lower numbers in the incoming classes, putting at risk the next generation of leaders;
  • Opportunities for mid-level employees are extremely limited, with a freeze on most transfers and promotions;
  • And our most experienced officials—the Department’s equivalent of 2, 3, and 4-star generals—have been departing or effectively forced out and not replaced at the same rate.

“I honor the experienced career officials stepping in to fill vacancies and carry out the Department’s important work, but there are limits to what officials can accomplish in an acting role.  It is now December, M. President.  We cannot afford to have a Department that remains hamstrung because of rudderless stagnation at the top.

“But let’s be clear – this is not just about numbers or unfilled positions.  The numbers do not tell the full story.  While the employees at the State Department and USAID can and have been carrying on, it is not an easy task when employees feel that the message they receive from the top is that they—and their work—are not valued. This understandably has an impact on morale—which is now devastatingly low, something even the State Department spokeswomen and Deputy Secretary Sullivan have acknowledged. 

“In embarking on what he has dubbed a ‘redesign’ of the Department, Secretary Tillerson has regrettably left the men and women who so capably and loyally serve it, behind.  I have heard from many employees who are not just concerned about their own futures or careers, but who are concerned about the direction of the Department itself, and the viability of its legacy.  M. President, the State Department’s leadership has had more than enough time to assess what can be improved.  It is beyond time to show the men and women serving at State and USAID that they are not only a valued, but a vital part of our national diplomacy and national security strategy.

“For weeks, Secretary Tillerson has promised to announce significant progress on his plan to move the Department forward.  Today, in a speech to State Department and USAID personnel, the message was once again underwhelming.  Secretary Tillerson continues to tinker around the edges while the Department’s core functions are deliberately hollowed out. 

“While I am encouraged to see him announce a few small but important steps in the right direction today, I am worried that he still has not gotten the overall message. 

“Despite calls by myself and others—Senator McCain, Senator Young, all the Democratic Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, and pleas from current and former employees, diplomats and military leaders, Secretary Tillerson has yet to lift the hiring freeze that remains in place.  Today he announced it would be lifted for the family members of employees—a welcome step, but not enough.   Freezing or limiting opportunities for family members to join their spouses who are serving abroad never made sense in the first place. 

“I am therefore still left wondering why the hiring freeze has been in place at all—when nearly every other federal agency lifted it earlier this year—and I cannot understand how it has benefited our Foreign and Civil Service. So, again, I am left asking ‘Why?’.  

“Why should we tolerate a massive exodus of diplomatic and development expertise at the State Department and USAID? Our President said recently that we do not need to worry about the fact that many of the senior level positions at the State Department remain unfilled because when it comes to foreign policy his opinion is the only one that matters.  Why on earth would he say that?  For the thousands of FSOs around the world working to advance the ideals of United States, this was a horrible and offensive message. 

“M. President, I am concerned that this Administration does not understand how critical a role State and USAID play in our national security policy.  They are every bit as vital and critical an element of our national security as the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, our law enforcement, or the countless others in the federal government who work tirelessly every day to protect our security, extend our prosperity, and promote our values.

“We put our country in danger when we do not give adequate voice and resources to our all country’s national security tools.  Secretary Madeleine Albright has said, “[i]n a turbulent and perilous world, the men and women of the Foreign Service are on the front lines every day, on every continent for us.” 

“Diplomacy is an investment we make so we don’t have to go to war.  Nickel-and-diming it is not in our national security interest.

“I have made no secret about my deep concerns regarding the current management practices of the Department’s leadership—the reorganization and budget debacles, the current senior level vacancies, and the deep costs that our foreign service and development professionals are paying.  The United States’ foreign policy leadership around the world is also paying the price and will continue to pay the price if things aren’t turned around quickly.

“Even with the few changes Secretary Tillerson announced today, I believe there are still multiple issues that need to be addressed. I raised many of them recently in a letter to the Secretary with my fellow Democratic colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the Secretary truly wishes for the State Department and our country to succeed, he will seriously consider the following concerns:

  •  Improving Transparency: First, all Senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should receive regular briefings that thoroughly address proposed reorganization plans and decisions. 
  • Details and Timeline for the Reorganization. Second, the Department must provide a clear timeline—something it has failed to do to date—and provide details about what it is planning. While there are some parts of the reorganization that we find to be positive, such as improving information technology, I remain concerned that the reorganization may marginalize or eliminate critical bureaus and offices that help inform U.S. foreign policy. I understand that many of these ideas may not come to fruition – but it is essential for us to receive details in a timely way so that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can carry out its critical oversight function.
  • Filling Senior Vacancies.  Third, the Department must prioritize key senior vacancies and work with the White House to swiftly move forward qualified nominees.  The significant vacancies for senior-level management and policy positons in such critical bureaus as Counterterrorism and Political and Military Affairs are deeply troubling.  Approximately 30 countries still do not have named Ambassador nominees, including South Korea, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.  Despite claims that the Senate’s slow pace is to blame for the lack of confirmed nominees, the fact is that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has promptly processed the vast majority of nominees, and only a handful are currently awaiting a Senate vote. We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated. 
  • Upholding the Mission of the Department.  Finally, the Department’s mission statement must continue to reflect the values we hold as Americans.  Proposed changes send a troubling signal about the Administration’s vision for the Department and its role in foreign policy.  The promotion of democracy and respect for human rights around the world must remain a central part of the State Department’s overall mission.

“I agree that improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Department is critical to our national security given the countless challenges our nation faces.  Reforms to information technology, human resources, and procurement systems are long overdue, and I support the efforts of the Department to streamline Special Envoy and Special Representative positions. 

“I hope that moving forward the Department will consider Congress as a partner in these endeavors, as well as broader efforts to strengthen America’s diplomatic capabilities.  However, if the Department continues down its current path my colleagues and I will be forced to turn to legislative options to address our many concerns. My goal is to ensure that the employees of the State Department have all the resources and support they require to complete their tasks and ensure the United States remains a global diplomatic leader. And, I will do everything in my power to guarantee this goal is accomplished.

“Secretary Tillerson is due before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week and I intend to press him on these important issues in person. Thank you, M. President.”