Senate Democrats are demanding that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lift a hiring freeze, nominate more candidates for vacant diplomatic slots and share much more detail with Congress about his plan to restructure the State Department.
If Tillerson doesn’t step up his cooperation with Capitol Hill, the lawmakers warn, they’ll use legislation to force him.
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The demands were conveyed in a stern and lengthy letter to Tillerson dated Wednesday and signed by all 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including ranking member Ben Cardin of Maryland.
The letter, shared first with POLITICO, is the latest sign of growing concern in Congress about the future of U.S. diplomacy under President Donald Trump. The missive also illustrates the growing unhappiness with Tillerson in Congress, where even some Republicans have questioned the merits of his plans for the State Department.
In the letter, the Democrats nod to reports of sinking morale in the State Department, where many top officials have quit and others have felt sidelined in the policymaking process since Tillerson took over in February.
“The department’s redesign, spending, and personnel moves are taking place largely behind closed doors and without the level of transparency we would expect,” the senators write. “Moreover, proposals that have come to light lead us to question whether the intended result is in fact a more efficient department that continues to serve the interests of the American people and promote our foreign policy objectives abroad.”
The letter presses Tillerson to update lawmakers on his restructuring plan more frequently , including by offering a timeline for how long it will take. It also requests that Tillerson share copies of all of the restructuring plans he has given to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The letter notes that lawmakers have felt so in the dark that they have had to rely on media reports and other avenues to figure out what Tillerson is doing.
For instance: “We have heard rumors that the department is considering ‘hybrid embassy’ or ‘regional embassy’ models and reorganizing embassies by ‘function,'” the Democrats note. “Yet, the department has provided few details.”
Meanwhile, the lawmakers write, Tillerson should lift his freeze on hiring, promotions and transfers “given the uncertain timeline of the reorganization and the ongoing detrimental effects the freeze is having” on workforce morale.
They also question Tillerson’s efforts to streamline the State Department’s workforce of 75,000 partly through attrition.
“We think that attrition as a strategy for managing a workforce is problematic because it does not allow management to control for the skills, experience, and workforces that it actually needs. When dealing with national security, the potential costs of such a mismatch can be fatal,” the senators state.
In a recent public appearance in Washington, Tillerson defended his restructuring plans and urged critics to ignore what he claimed were “false” reports about a depleted State Department. He noted that he’s made more than 2,300 exceptions to the hiring freeze and that vacant positions were being held on an acting basis by capable career diplomats.
On Tuesday, during a gathering with U.S. diplomats in Brussels, Belgium, Tillerson promised there would be town halls held by the end of the year to update State Department staffers on the progress of the restructuring plan.
While Tillerson acknowledged some of the criticism he’s received, he added, “The State Department is not missing a beat because we’re still working through the process.”
The Democrats’ letter chides Tillerson for assigning senior staffers to clerical-type roles such as processing public records requests, and it expresses frustration with the dearth of nominations set forth for dozens of ambassadorships and high-ranking posts based in Foggy Bottom.
“It is unclear whether these posts are unfilled by design or dysfunction; either way it is deeply troubling,” the lawmakers write. “We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated.”
The lawmakers request that Tillerson respond to their concerns by Dec. 20. They also state that although they would prefer to work with Tillerson and his aides, they are exploring “legislative options to address these concerns.”
Such legislative maneuvering, congressional staffers have said in the past, could include using stronger and more specific language in various State Department funding and authorization bills about what the secretary can and must do in terms of hiring and reorganization.
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