With an unusual burst of bipartisan end-of-the-year goodwill, Congress nearly passed, after a 20-year hiatus, a State Department authorization bill this month. But then something happened to torpedo the effort in the final days.
The torpedo was Ivanka Trump.
And the two lawmakers, rather than cave to the attack from the White House, threw out the anchors, absorbed the explosion and watched as the State Department authorization bill was scuttled by the Senate and detached from the bigger annual defense policy bill, just to appease the president’s daughter and the White House.
With the bill’s drowning, hopes were sunk that maybe, just maybe, this would be the year that lawmakers would finally pass a full State Department authorization bill, which governs Foggy Bottom’s policies, programs and procedures.
Said a Democratic aide familiar with the contretemps, who was not authorized to be named: “Instead of the White House just acknowledging they are biting off more than anyone could chew, they just had a temper tantrum and State Authorization had to come out. Ultimately, that got flushed down the toilet, as we say colloquially, ‘because Ivanka didn’t get her pony.’”
Lawmakers got unusually close this year to clearing the State authorization bill after the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, known as the “Four Corners,” agreed to attach an updated version of the House-passed fiscal 2020 State authorization bill to the conference report for the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
“For the most part, we were willing to jettison anything that wasn’t ready for prime time” to get the bill passed, said the Democratic aide. “Ultimately, the bulk of [the] provisions had been reserved because they are longtime, in-the-weeds management fixes and tweaks that the State Department needs, many of which they’d been asking for, for years.”
But then came the disagreement between White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump and Pelosi and Shaheen over Trump’s push to include language that would institutionalize her signature international development program: the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative.
Pelosi and Shaheen were initially open to adding a provision to the diplomatic policy bill that would codify Trump’s empowerment initiative and nest it within Foggy Bottom’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which would also be permanently authorized by the legislation.
However, a push by anti-abortion groups, with Trump’s support, to include language that Democrats said would undermine the role of reproductive health in the work already underway by the Global Women’s office ultimately caused Pelosi and Shaheen to withdraw their support for codifying the W-GDP initiative.
When it became apparent that Democrats were not going to budge, the White House insisted that the entire State authorization measure be stripped from the NDAA.
The White House rejected any blame for the inability to pass the broader diplomatic bill, accusing Pelosi of acting out of spite in seeking to prevent Trump’s hallmark initiative from being enshrined at the State Department.
“Ivanka has demonstrated she will work with anyone, regardless of party lines, who is willing to stand up and ensure America’s commitment to women both at home and abroad. Speaker Pelosi would rather tank her own chairman’s bill than give the administration and millions of women around the world a win,” White House spokeswoman Carolina Hurley said in a statement.
NDAA takes precedence
Democrats said they were frustrated that Republicans caved to White House pressure to strip the State authorization measure, even as they proved willing to hold their ground on other defense bill provisions related to the renaming of military facilities named after Confederate leaders and legal liability for social media companies that also elicited veto threats.
Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe justified axing the State authorization measure from the NDAA by arguing that the State authorization bill was unrelated to the underlying defense policy measure.
“There’s too much opposition from the pro-life [groups]. They had a provision in there that pro-life didn’t want, and I don’t know the reason for that. I just know that they acted as a group,” the Oklahoma Republican told CQ Roll Call. “And since there was objection to it, I didn’t really want to put myself in a position of evaluating the objection.”
What should be bedrock for oversight of foreign policy, enacting an annual measure reauthorizing or overhauling various operations and programs run by the State Department, hasn’t occurred in 20 years. (Lawmakers in 2016 were able to pass a slimmed-down authorization measure that updated rules for embassy security and personnel practices).
Meanwhile, the annual defense authorization bill has been cleared without fail every year for 60 years. That is indicative, observers say, of the precedence lawmakers give to hardcore military issues over more amorphous foreign policy objectives.
And while President Donald Trump has promised to veto the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill, throwing up the most serious hurdle in years to that legislation’s routine enactment, lawmakers’ commitment to the bill is such that they are expected to return early from their holiday recess to attempt to override the veto.
For foreign policy specialists in Congress such as Sen. Chris Coons, who sits on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, the inability to pass a State Department authorization bill is galling.
“Over the last decade that I’ve served on the Foreign Relations Committee, Congress after Congress, we’ve struggled to find a bipartisan path back towards doing an annual State Department authorization bill,” the Delaware Democrat said in an interview. “The Defense Department has had an annual authorization bill for six decades. The State Department used to, every single year. But that hasn’t happened for 20 years.”
State Department priorities scuttled
Among other things, the State Department authorization bill would have required that all special envoy positions be Senate-confirmed; reduced some of the administrative barriers that deter former midlevel and senior-level Foreign Service officers from rejoining the State Department; and mandated diversity training for senior officials and hiring managers.
The original version of the bill was so popular in the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it advanced by unanimous agreement last summer and passed the House under suspension of the rules, which can only happen for measures that have at least two-thirds support.
The inability to pass even a basic, noncontroversial diplomatic operations bill that enjoyed bipartisan, bicameral support is emblematic of the greater challenge Congress has grappled with since the Sept. 11 attacks in conducting oversight of complicated and often divisive foreign policy issues.
It might not have come to a last-minute showdown with the White House at the end of the 116th Congress if the Senate had earlier taken up the State authorization bill that the House passed in summer 2019. But the legislation collected dust before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for over a year without any markup. Then, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., decided to try attaching it to this year’s must-pass NDAA.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, declined an interview request about the State authorization issue and his role in it.
“Ahh, no. I don’t want to do an interview on that, but thanks for asking,” he said in a Senate hallway last week.
Engel had hoped that passage of the first full State authorization bill in two decades would be the crowning achievement of his two-year chairmanship of the committee, which is ending this month because he lost his primary election in the summer.
“As I wrap up my time in Congress, I want to offer a bit of parting advice: if we are serious about American diplomacy as a foreign policy tool and if we want to do more than just pay lip service to our dedicated diplomats and other State Department personnel, we have to stop kicking this can down the road,” Engel said in a statement. “The State Department needs reforms and support that only Congress can provide.”
Added Coons: “I’ve seen the details, the rocks on which this runs aground year after year. We have to get this right because, bluntly, it’s hurting not just the State Department, not just [the U.S. Agency for International Development], but it’s hurting our ability to really deploy the best tools and diplomacy and development around the world.”