The House this week will consider a comprehensive overhaul of the Foreign Service Act, an administration-backed attempt to reverse a decline in the Foreign Service's ability to attract and retain high-quality officers.
The bill, which includes an array of new benefits for members of the Foreign Service, "is not a panacea, but it addresses many of the abuses and gaps" that have developed since the act first was passed in 1946, said Ben Reed, undersecretary for management at the State Department.
The Foreign Service has faced increasing difficulty in the last two decades in attracting and keeping talented people. For example:
In 1979, resignations of mid-career Foreign Service officers were up 69 percent over the yearly average for the preceding decade.
In 1979, for the first time in its history, the Foreign Service got more rejections than acceptances from persons who were offered positions.
In 1979 11,000 people applied to join the service, compared to 20,000 in 1963.
This year the American Foreign Service Association sent out a questionaire to 3,000 Foreign Service officers. In the ones AFSA has received back, more than 500 officers say they are seriously considering resigning.
These figures are symptoms of a host of problems plaguing the service: The seizure of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has heightened the perception that the United States cannot protect its representatives in an increasingly hostile and dangerous world.
The growing desire of Foreign Service wives for careers of their own, when their husbands are required to move every few years, also has placed new strains on Foreign Service families.
With instantaneous communication and jet travel, many Foreign Service officers think their influence has been usurped by presidential staffs and Washington civil servants.
"On the one hand, we are faced with increasing dangers and hardships. On the other, we're stripped of our functions and denied the resources needed to do our jobs," says Ken Bleakley, president of the American Foreign Service which represents about 11,000 Foreign Service members.
In this situation, he says, it's not surprising that so many officers ask, "What's the use?"
The new Foreign Service Act, proposed last summer by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, does not reshape the role of the service, but it does offer its members new rewards in an attempt to reassure them that they are a valued part of the foreign policy establishment.
Among its provisions, as amended in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are pay and grade scales comparable to those of the civil service, which amounts to a substantial pay raise for Foreign Service members. A study commissioned last year by the State Department found that Foreign Service employes make 25 percent less than civil service employes with comparable qualifications.
However, even though the Carter administration supports the revampting of the Foreign Service Act, the White House objects to the pay provision as being too costly and may attempt to modify or eliminate it.
Other provisions of the bill would:
Link tenure, promotions and incentive pay to quality of performance for all personnel, including senior officers.
Recognize collective bargaining for members of the Foreign Service and establish a formal grievance procedure.
Permit equal consideration of family members of Foreign Service employes and government employes for jobs that open up abroad.
Increase allowances for health care, education, travel and vacations from hardship posts.
Automatically divide a Foreign Service officer's retirement benefits with his ex-spouse on a pro-rated basis in the event of divorce. Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) plans to offer an amendment to leave this division to the courts.
Lift the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65.
In the Senate, the bill is still in the Foreign Relations Committee.