Vehicle for State reauthorization leaves some policy goals behind
Accountability for Saudi Arabia’s actions against dissident and provisions promoting diversity, management reforms were left out, chairman says
Tucked into a just-passed Pentagon policy measure are numerous provisions that amount to the furthest lawmakers have gotten in two decades to fulfilling their State Department authorization duties.
The provisions would tweak and modernize various operations and processes at Foggy Bottom. Many of the State Department authorization provisions included in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act are noncontroversial updates to the State Department’s management and personnel policies.
Those changes have been in the works for the last three Congresses, but lawmakers were unable to push them across the finish line due to the precarious position that State authorization matters occupy within the hierarchy of the Capitol Hill legislative ecosystem.
The bulk of the diplomacy provisions that Congress cleared last week were ones contained in a fiscal 2022 State authorization measure introduced by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y. The House in May passed Meeks' bill under suspension of the rules, a process that allows for quick passage of measures with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“As I have made clear upon taking the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, one of my top priorities has been reasserting our committee’s role in ensuring regular authorization of the Department of State by Congress, something that has not happened in nearly two decades,” Meeks said in a statement.
But because the State authorization language was catching a ride on the defense policy measure, which lawmakers treat as a priority, reliably passing it every year for the last six decades, Senate Republicans were able to insist that multiple provisions popular with Democrats be stripped out.
“Unfortunately, several important provisions did not make it into the final language of the NDAA, including robust measures related to the brutal war in Yemen, accountability for Saudi Arabia’s actions against dissidents and civil society and provisions promoting diversity and other management reforms at the State Department,” Meeks said. “I am very disappointed that … we were unable to secure the requisite support from Senate Republicans to advance them into the final package.”
While the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations panels were able to reach agreement among themselves on which parts of the House-passed bill — as well as additional SFRC-crafted provisions — to collectively push for inclusion in the defense bill, the final decision was ultimately out of their hands, Democratic aides said in an interview.
Some titles included in the HFAC bill related to security assistance and combating corruption were broken off during conference negotiations with SFRC, which Democratic staffers, who were granted anonymity in order to discuss bill deliberations in greater detail, attributed to senators not having enough time to familiarize themselves with the provisions before they needed to present consensus text to Senate Armed Services and House Armed Services leadership.
“Those things are important but they are more thematic policy matters,” said one of the Democratic staffers in characterizing the provisions that were left on the cutting room floor. “The main thrust of this bill was to start with the obvious low-hanging fruit. The State Department needs authorizations and authorities to run itself and manage its personnel effectively and manage its embassies overseas effectively.”
The final compromise version of the defense legislation was cobbled together earlier this month over the course of a night by the four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The end result was an overall bill more conservative than Democrats had been expecting — especially since Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
What made it in
The Foggy Bottom authorization portion of the defense bill doesn’t authorize every State Department account, though there is an approval of nearly $2 billion for fiscal 2022 for embassy security, construction and maintenance activities.
“There is something meaningful about actually authorizing resources because that has not been done by the authorizers for many, many years,” the Democratic staffer said.
The measure specifies that special envoy positions are subject to Senate confirmation; makes permanent a current authority to provide incentive payments to employees for hardship posts; and requires a report on Foreign Service allowances.
“This bill provides the necessary authorities to help strengthen and rebuild the State Department so it can more effectively carry out America’s foreign policy,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement.
Following actions taken by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his tenure that disregarded longstanding department policies on things like Senate-confirmed appointees not participating in national political conventions, lawmakers included language in the defense bill to make it explicit that the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual and Foreign Affairs Handbook do apply to the secretary position.
And after Pompeo and several of his close advisers stalled or resisted sitting for interviews for the department’s Office of the Inspector General related to various incidents of reported misconduct, lawmakers sought to prevent any repeats. The defense measure includes a provision that makes it explicit that any department personnel who do not comply with a State OIG request for documents or interviews will be administratively punished.
Lawmakers also included language that orders the department to establish a mechanism for any employee subject to an “assignment restriction” to “have the same appeal rights as provided by the department regarding denial or revocation of a security clearance.”
Assignment restrictions limit the countries that some diplomats can serve in based on their ethnicity or family connections. The practice has come under increasing criticism, especially by Democrats who argue it unfairly limits career opportunities and disproportionately impacts diplomats of color.
In 2016, Congress included a provision in the defense policy law that directed the department to improve its process for State employees’ appealing their assignment restrictions. But when the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau was unresponsive to that directive, lawmakers decided they needed to be “much more prescriptive on what the appeals mechanism needs to be,” a second Democratic aide said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his top deputies have made several changes to the assignment restrictions process and are contemplating additional ones. In acknowledging that the assignment restrictions process has been ham-handed, Blinken earlier this fall announced that nearly 60 percent of all preexisting assignment restrictions had been lifted.
Diversity provisions excluded
More frustrating to Democrats was that much of the language contained in the House-passed State authorization measure related to improving diversity within the department’s workforce was stripped out by Republicans during conference negotiations.
All of the diversity-related provisions contained in the House bill were agreed to by Meeks, House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Menendez and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, according to the Democratic aides.
Those provisions included things like requiring that all department internships be paid and ordering the department to collect and publish disaggregated data on the demographics of employees.
But when Senate Republicans, notably Senate Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., pushed back on including those provisions in the defense policy bill, the Foreign Affairs committee leaders conceded. They opted to instead save the other State authorization provisions after seeing them collapse so close to the finish line in previous years, the staffers said.
Requests for comment to Inhofe’s office were not returned.
“The chairmen’s view was, ‘We need to break this curse. We need to get this State authorization,’” the first staffer said, adding: “This is the first step, not the last step” in getting back to a regular State authorization schedule.
Still, a few provisions meant to improve the department’s recruitment, retention and promotion of a diverse workforce did make it through.
They include a requirement that the department offer departing employees exit interviews and then analyze the results for implications for diversity; expand anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training and make it compulsory for senior and supervisory officials, including those with HR roles; and directing that promotion reviews consider how well officials’ have done at promoting diversity and inclusion in their current roles.