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Cardin, Hagerty aim to fund modernization panel for US diplomacy

Senate duo looks to update State Department structure and operations

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 fall of Afghanistan underlined the State Department’s need for an agile and capable workforce that can get to global hot spots to help Americans and allies as needed.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate panel that oversees State Department operations say its structure and ability to be responsive, or even proactive, are outdated and leave U.S. diplomacy unprepared for an accelerating tempo of crises and spreading instability. The senators are aiming this year to provide funds for a commission that would make recommendations to modernize the department, building on authority provided in legislation last year.

“The challenges at the State Department have never been more difficult,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., citing the conflict in Ukraine, U.S. strategic competition with China, residual impacts of the pandemic, spreading hunger and extreme weather resulting from climate change. Cardin chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee overseeing the management of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Cardin and the panel’s ranking member, Republican Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, are pushing to secure funding in the fiscal 2024 State-Foreign Operations spending measure to stand up the commission they got authorized in the 2022 defense policy measure. The two senators say the commission’s work is needed to ascertain the best way to ensure that the State Department has the personnel and flexibility to address 21st century challenges.

“We know we don’t have enough personnel in the [U.S. diplomatic] missions in order to carry out what we expect them to do,” Cardin said Wednesday at an event at the Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement. “We also know that we are regularly reprioritizing where we have to put our resources because of international events and circumstances, and that requires us to take personnel out of missions, and they become very short-staffed.”

Hagerty, who served as ambassador to Japan during the Trump administration, noted at the same event that he didn’t have the specialized staff he wanted for certain tasks in Tokyo, one of the largest U.S. missions. He found that the embassy didn’t initially have a staff member with a business master’s degree who could crunch the numbers on foreign infrastructure development projects the U.S. was considering pursuing with the Japanese government, part of an effort to curb China’s growing influence with developing Asian economies.

“There were tremendous resources at my disposal, but the thing that struck me immediately when I said, ‘How many MBAs do I have on staff?’ The answer was not clear,” Hagerty said. “I felt like I needed the analytic capability that someone with that type of training would bring.”

Cardin and Hagerty’s language in the defense policy measure calls for the establishment of an independent legislative commission to scrutinize U.S. diplomacy and recommend improvements to Foggy Bottom’s organizational structure, facilities, personnel and internal policies. The 16-member commission, still unnamed, would have two years to report on its recommendations.

The defense policy bill authorized $2 million for the commission. Cardin, who isn’t seeking reelection next year, said he was optimistic that the panel could be funded in the fiscal 2024 foreign aid funding measure because the sum is small.

“There may be a lane here that we can operate,” said Cardin, even in light of the debt limit bill that would cap nondefense discretionary spending. The cap could effectively mean more than a 5 percent cut in fiscal 2024 for many government operations. The House passed the bill Wednesday, and the Senate cleared it on Thursday.

Hagerty, a member of the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said it would be a priority for him to see money for the commission included in the fiscal 2024 diplomacy and development spending bill.

“Job one is getting the appropriation in place and getting those members of the commission in place,” he said.

Diplomatic reserve corps

Congress last gave the makeup, structure and responsibilities of the diplomatic corps a significant scrubbing in 1980 with a law known as the Foreign Service Act. Lawmakers, retired diplomats, issue experts and the union representing active Foreign Service officers have since had a lot of time to ponder changes they would like should Congress show the appetite to take on another overhaul.

Anticipating the commission’s work, one group of retired ambassadors, with assistance from the American Foreign Service Association, is hoping to seize the moment. The group released a report encompassing a series of blueprints for updating the department and refocusing its diplomatic mission to claw back foreign policy influence implicitly ceded to other government departments like the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

“Our philosophy was that the State Department needs to earn its way back to the center of foreign policymaking and foreign policy execution,” Marc Grossman, the No. 3 State Department official during the George W. Bush administration who co-led the writing of the modernization blueprints, said at the Meridian Center event. “This isn’t a gift that someone is going to give the State Department. This thing has to be earned, and it was one of our main principles.”

Among the top recommendations, with sample legislative language, are that Congress should establish a new “Diplomatic Reserve Corps.” The idea of a reserve force of diplomats who could be called up and deployed overseas during crises or massive natural disasters goes back decades.

“A State Department Reserve Corps will strengthen the bond between American citizens and their diplomats in the same visible and positive way this works for the U.S. armed forces,” the report says. “Reservists, in addition to their work supporting U.S. diplomacy, will be ‘hometown diplomats.’”

The group envisions some 1,000 part-time diplomats, including retired senior and mid-ranking Foreign Service officers as well as individuals from academia and the private sector working in such fields as artificial intelligence, data science and biotechnology.

“We don’t have the possibility of large numbers of employees at the State Department. That’s not going to happen . . . under the realities of politics,” said Cardin. A reserve force could enable the department to scale up its diplomatic capacity at much lower expense than hiring 1,000 new full-time diplomats, he said.

Hagerty also sounded enthusiastic, noting that many ex-diplomats would gladly re-enter government service in an emergency.

“They would come back in a heartbeat if they were needed,” he said. “They will rise to the occasion. I am certain they will.”

Grossman, a former head of human resources at the State Department as well as former director general of the Foreign Service, said the report recommends building out the envisioned reserve corps over five years.

“Over time, we estimate that this will cost $42 million annually to have a reserve corps operating long into the future,” he said. “When you think about total amount of money, it’s not that much.”

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