The most important national security concerns today — the fights against ISIS, violent extremism, narco-terrorism, human trafficking, hunger and disease — depend on engaging our partners around the world effectively. That doesn't mean assigning your son-in-law to liaise with world leaders; it means having a staffed, robust and functional diplomatic corps at the State Department.
The Trump Administration, however, is pursuing a dangerous approach to the United States’ engagement with the rest of the world by trying to slash the international budget in fiscal year 2019 by 30 percent. These cuts would hinder America's effectiveness and influence on the world stage, and shirk our responsibilities as a world leader.
Many lawmakers, including former President George W. Bush, understand that diplomacy and development — along with defense — constitute key pillars of our national security. And Democrats (whose votes are needed to enact appropriations law) and many Republicans view blind cuts to global diplomatic and development priorities as reckless and foolhardy.
That’s why last spring, just weeks after receiving the Administration’s 2018 budget request, which would have slashed these same programs by 32 percent, Congress rejecting those cuts. And this week, Congress is in the midst of negotiating legislation that should instead significantly boost this country's investments in diplomacy and foreign engagement, not slash them.
Unfortunately, a United States president nonetheless has the capacity to inflict severe harm on the agencies that execute our foreign policy, even when Congress rejects unwise policy and insufficient funding levels he demands.
Trump is doing just that: After barely one year in office, the president is crippling our diplomatic and development capabilities at the senior, mid- and entry level of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Despite the willingness of Congress to confirm many of the president's nominees, 65 percent of senior positions at the State Department are unfilled, and only one of the 11 regional Assistant Secretaries is in place. An extended freeze on both hiring and internal transfers has taken a similar toll on the ranks of the civil service.
Beyond that, 52 ambassadorships are vacant, and more than half of those vacancies have no nominee — including for strategically critical nations like Egypt, European Union, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. At the USAID, Administrator Mark Green is the only confirmed senior leader.
And, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the class of new foreign service officers has dropped from 366 in 2016 to approximately 100 in 2018, and fewer than half as many people took the Foreign Service Officer test this year compared with last year.
The Administration calls its hatchet job a “reorganization,” which is a bit like knocking down a house and calling it a renovation. We cannot promote American interests, build relationships and serve Americans as effectively with a “lost generation” of foreign and civil service officers. This mismanagement of the State Department and USAID is having severe and negative consequences on United States national security and stature as a world leader.
Congress must exercise the same oversight on the Administration’s dangerous executive dismantling of the State Department and USAID as we do on their funding.
And we need to do so immediately: The president has already eschewed the counsel of subject matter experts on the most intractable foreign policy challenges of our day, such as the Mideast peace process, which is in its most stagnant position in decades. He's publicly considered a reckless, preemptive strike on North Korea, resulting in the hasty departure of the president’s nominee for Ambassador to South Korea. And his cozying up to dictators like Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin shows the rest of the world that America has turned a blind eye to gross human rights violations, diminishing our nation in the eyes of the free world and immeasurably harming our credibility.
With such irresponsible leadership from a president who seems to think that the soft power of diplomacy is weakness and that foreign assistance is nothing but charity for supposedly undeserving and ungrateful foreigners, Congress must use every tool at our disposal to salvage U.S. global leadership. Oversight hearings should aggressively challenge the wisdom of insufficient funding requests and “reorganizations” that make us less able to confront global challenges with a prepared workforce. Congress should use its power of the purse to withhold funding and reject requests that weaken our capacity instead of strengthening it.
And, we must do everything we can to protect the relationships with international partners that expand American influence, open new markets and confront challenges that have no military solution. By protecting robust funding levels for diplomacy and development, and by exercising strong oversight over agency reorganizations that are hollowing out core capacity, Congress can serve as a check on the dangerous whims of the president.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.