State official seeks to allay concerns over agency overhaul

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department’s second in command, John Sullivan, sought Monday to allay fears that a plan to reorganize the agency will lead to an upheaval of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that major decisions, such as transferring key operations to the Department of Homeland Security, have not been made.

But Democrats on the committee remained skeptical given the drastic cuts to the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development that the Trump administration has proposed. The reductions, which Congress has yet to approve, have stoked concerns that a far-reaching overhaul, involving job cuts, program eliminations and the expected consolidation of many offices in the agency’s sprawling bureaucracy are a foregone conclusion.

But Sullivan gamely argued otherwise. He said there is no intention of folding the independent U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department. He told members of the committee that USAID is well represented in internal department discussions on the reorganization and that he understands and respects USAID’s different mission, culture and skill sets.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he found the possibility of making USAID part of the State Department alarming.

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He called the reorganization effort an “ill defined” process that “thus far seems to be no more than an exercise in undermining and pushing out career diplomats.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she would oppose any attempt to move the State Department’s bureaus for refugee admissions programs and consular affairs to Homeland Security. Sullivan said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “does not have at present that intention.” But Sullivan also said if those moves are raised during the reorganization review, “we would consider” them.

More than three dozen former diplomats and national security officials from Republican and Democratic administrations have urged Tillerson to retain the department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. They said they were reacting to a leaked proposal from the White House Domestic Policy Council to shift the office to Homeland Security.

Homeland Security, the former officials told Tillerson in a letter released Monday, “has neither the international staffing infrastructure nor the expertise to identify refugee groups in need of protection or resettlement, nor to understand the diplomatic consequences or opportunities to leverage resettlement for U.S. foreign policy interests.”

Among those who signed the July 16 letter were William Burns, who served as deputy secretary of state and envoy to Russia during the Obama administration, and William H. Taft IV, who held high ranking posts at the State and Defense departments during the George W. Bush administration. Leaders of 18 humanitarian organizations also signed the letter.

“We are convinced that the elimination of PRM’s assistance functions would have profound and negative implications for the Secretary of State’s capacity to influence policy issues of key concern to the United States,” they wrote. “It would also be ironic, as this is one of the bureaus at State that has enjoyed strong bipartisan support over many years.”

A survey commissioned by the State Department also recommended moving State’s responsibilities for issuing passports, visas, and other travel documents to Homeland Security. Those duties are currently handled by the Bureau of Consular Affairs, one of the largest parts of the State Department.

The survey, conducted by a private consulting firm, was ordered in late April by Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO. Tillerson was brought into Trump’s administration in part due to his experience running a massive organization, and he was given a mission to reorganize the State Department.

Tillerson has largely accepted the administration’s plans to slash diplomatic and development funding, although he faces intense bipartisan opposition in Congress, which will likely reverse at least some of his proposed 31-percent cut in funding.

Trump wanted to cut almost $17 billion from the foreign aid budget, but House Republicans countered last week with a reduction of $10 billion. The $47 billion foreign aid measure approved by the House Appropriations Committee spared Israel and Egypt and exempted the budget for protecting U.S. embassies overseas.

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Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner