Democrats are expected to put up a fight in the coming days and weeks over a Republican plan to withhold a substantial amount of the State Department’s operating budget as punishment for the amount of time it is taking the agency to produce the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Language in the House Appropriations Commitee’s draft of a fiscal 2016 state-foreign operations bill would order the withholding of 15 percent of the department’s operations budget, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, until it fulfills certain requirements on the appropriate preserving of electronic communications and handling of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The bill is scheduled to be marked up Thursday by the full Appropriations Committee. A number of Democrats on the committee have indicated they intend to try to remove or water-down the provision.
Democrats are accusing Republicans of unfairly penalizing Foggy Bottom for the time it has taken State to produce Clinton’s emails, in particular her messages related to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Even open-government advocates, who are quick to note the State Departments’s poor track record on transparency, have said the Republican language goes too far and could actually make the problem worse.
The at-risk funding amounts to just less than $700 million from the department’s Diplomatic and Consular Programs budget, which totals about $4.6 billion for the coming fiscal year under the appropriations measure.
The bill language explicitly excludes diplomatic security activities from the withholding rule.
At least 3 of the 5 Democrats on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee spoke out against the withholding rule last week, when the panel voted to approved the bill and send it to the full committee.
The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Nita M. Lowey of New York, said the “politically motivated” language would punish the department if officials there “don’t feed the Republican sham investigation of Benghazi.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said in an interview that he would make it a priority as the bill advances to push for a re-evaluation of the bill’s language. The Maryland Democrat said he understands the use of leverage to try to force better behavior, but said he doesn’t believe this method will produce good results.
“I do want to make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves by cutting the State Department and their ability to protect us and to negotiate for us and to make sure that we are players in this very dangerous world,” said the former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Drumbeat of Investigations
There have been multiple official investigations of the events surrounding the September 2012 attack on the Benghazi facility that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Republicans, however, continue to use their majority in the House and now in the Senate to attempt to unearth information from the attack that would cast the Obama administration, and specifically Clinton, in a bad light so as to hurt her chances of winning the presidency in 2016.
When the special House Select Committee on Benghazi was having a hard time getting State Department responses to an oversight request for Clinton’s emails related to Benghazi, the reason created a new public furor. Clinton — in violation of the spirit, if not the letter of the law related to the retention of government emails — used a private email server that she controlled to send and receive messages related to her work as secretary of State. That practice has made it exceedingly cumbersome for the department to retrieve and the public to gain access to many of Clinton’s official government correspondence from her tenure at Foggy Bottom.
Armed with the information of Clinton’s reliance on private emails, Republicans have become even more determined to pry into her records but have been frustrated by the amount of time it is taking the State Department to process congressional oversight and FOIA requests.
Rep. Kay Granger, chairwoman of the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, defended the proposed withholding of State Department funding, noting that a recent Center for Effective Government report ranked the department dead-last of federal agencies, giving it a grade of “F” in its ability to process public record requests in a timely and consistent manner.
But one of the co-authors of that report, transparency expert Sean Moulton, said threatening to take away hundreds of millions of dollars was “probably not the best way to address” Foggy Bottom’s transparency issues.
“There are serious questions as to exactly why the State Department is performing so poorly,” Moulton said in an interview.
He suggested Congress order its internal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate the department’s transparency problems.
“Once you’re armed with that information,” he said, “then you can make very carefully considered improvements and requirements on the State Department, but right now blindly going in and ordering better performance or face massive consequences seems ill-conceived.”
As currently written, the legislation would withhold 15 percent of operations funding until a certification is made that the department has updated and implemented policies for the “preservation of all records made or received in the conduct of official business” and that those rules apply to “all employees at every level of the department.”
The bill also would require Foggy Bottom to develop and implement a plan to reduce the backlog of congressional oversight and FOIA requests and “measurably improve the response time for answering such requests.”
Nate Jones, director of the FOIA Project at the National Security Archive, said it should not be too difficult to put in place policies requiring the retention of all employee emails, but addressing the department’s poor FOIA performance would take a longer time to correct.
“I really don’t think it’s smart to take away funds from a department whose problems already come from the problem that it’s underfunded and understaffed,” Jones said.
Jones said there is already a federal court ruling in place for the State Department to, on a rolling basis, release Clinton’s emails. The lawsuit that produced the ruling was brought by Vice News reporter Jason Leopold.
“That lawsuit is going to be the mechanism that the public will see these emails and any appropriations that cuts staffs would make the deadline more unlikely to be met,” Jones said.