Dozens of young minority and female State Department recruits received startling and unwelcome news last week: They would not be able to soon join the Foreign Service despite having been promised that opportunity. Their saga is just the latest sign that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rush to slash the size of the State Department without a plan is harming diplomacy and having negative unintended effects.
The recruits, who are part of the State Department’s Rangel and Pickering fellowship programs, have already completed two years of graduate-level education at U.S. taxpayers’ expense plus an internship, often in a foreign country. The deal they struck with the federal government was that after completing their educations they would be given an inside track to become full-fledged U.S. diplomats abroad if they also satisfied medical and security requirements. In turn, they promised to commit at least five years to the Foreign Service.
These minority and female candidates already went through a competitive application process, meaning they are some of the best and brightest young graduates around. It also means they have other options. Young stars don’t join the State Department for the money or the glory; they want to serve and represent their country and are willing to make sacrifices to do it.
Many were shocked when they received a letter telling them they had one week to decide if they wanted to take a much less appealing job — stamping passports in a foreign embassy for two years — with the prospect but no guarantee of becoming a Foreign Service officer even after that.
“This is no way to treat our next generation,” one Foreign Service officer serving overseas told me.
In Capitol Hill hearings last week, several lawmakers pressed Tillerson to explain why the State Department won’t waive the administration’s self-imposed hiring freeze for these few dozen recruits. Is the State Department still committed to diversity? Did Tillerson realize that the federal government has already spent tens of thousands of dollars educating each of these fellows?
Questioned first by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) last Tuesday, Tillerson didn’t have all the facts at his fingertips. By the time he got the same questions the next day from Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) Tillerson and the State Department had figured out what they wanted to say.
The department decided to delay the entire class of new Foreign Service officers, and the fellows were just caught up in that decision, Tillerson said. State wants to cut 8 percent of the State Department foreign and civil service workforce by the end of next year, so onboarding new diplomats didn’t make much sense.
Apparently unsatisfied, Meeks and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) wrote to Tillerson on Thursday to ask him to issue waivers that would make exceptions for the Rangel and Pickering fellows. It was Congress that authorized these programs and Congress intended to see them succeed, they said.
“There is substantial bipartisan and bicameral support for these fellowships and the talented young people who earn them,” the letter stated. Offering the fellows temporary consular positions “does not meet Congressional intent.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert defended the treatment of the fellows in her Thursday briefing, saying that the consular positions, although temporary and non-tenured, represent the best State can do.
“There’s a hiring freeze. But we are keeping our commitment to these fellows,” she said. “Look, it’s not an ideal situation.”
Coons, in an interview, said that the State Department’s explanation doesn’t hold water because the situation that officials are decrying is of their own making. The State Department set arbitrary personnel reduction goals before its own internal organizational review is even complete.
But the larger concern, he said, is that State’s treatment of the fellows is only the latest in a series of actions and decisions that are causing deep unhappiness and uncertainty across the department’s workforce. He pointed to the fact that almost all senior State Department political positions remain unfilled and that Tillerson has supported draconian budget cuts for diplomacy and development.
“These signals and decisions are beginning to have a genuine negative effect on morale and on our operating capacity,” said Coons. For America’s diplomats, “there is real lack of certainty about the path forward, about their careers. I’m concerned we are going to lose the very best of our Foreign Service,” he said.
There is certainly fat to be trimmed in the State Department’s budget. But the correct tool is a scalpel, and Tillerson’s method so far has been a hatchet job. His decisions might also ensure that the Foreign Service, to paraphrase former senator Bob Graham, remains largely “white, male and Yale” for years to come.