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State Department diplomats called back to work, for now

(Charles Dharapak/AP)

The State Department is calling back its furloughed diplomats next week after finding enough money to meet payroll to cover two weeks, but the 8,000 returning employees will still have to wait to get their retroactive pay, officials said Thursday.

The decision to recall diplomats was announced by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan during a luncheon for more than 180 ambassadors attending an annual conference. He received what one official described as two “rousing” rounds of applause.

Officials said a review of the State Department’s payroll accounts came up with enough money to meet one 15-day pay period. Beyond that, officials cautioned, they will have to see whether they can identify funds from other accounts that can be tapped should the shutdown extend beyond that. That would require the consent of Congress, however.

President Trump's request for $5.7 billion toward the border wall has caused a nearly month-long partial government shutdown. (Video: Patrick Martin, John Parks/The Washington Post)

In a letter to Congress late Thursday, the State Department said it intends to “reprogram and transfer resources to fund payroll” if the shutdown drags on, leading to questions from lawmakers.

“All furloughed and unpaid federal employees and their families are suffering terribly,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It isn’t just the State Department, and it isn’t right to cherry pick agencies this way.

“Rather than shift funds away from the purposes for which the Congress appropriated them, the Senate Republican Leader should bring up the bipartisan appropriations bills that would pass easily, and urge the President to sign them. If he does, we can reopen the government tomorrow.”

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Though the number of furloughed State Department employees has shifted from week to week, currently 40 percent of the 14,500 working in the United States are furloughed, as are 23 percent of 9,500 working overseas. More than 50,000 people work as local hires in embassies and consulates abroad, but they are protected from furloughs because local labor laws prohibit the practice of not paying people for work done. Furloughs were particularly steep at the U.S. Agency for International Development, hitting more than half of its 3,300 employees, including 7 out of 10 who work domestically.

All State Department employees are being recalled to regular duty, with pay, effective Sunday, which marks the start of the next pay period. In effect, that means most will not return to work until Tuesday, because Monday is a federal holiday. They will receive a regular paycheck on the next regularly scheduled payday, Feb. 14.

But as for the pay they have missed thus far during the shutdown, which entered its 27th day Thursday, they, like other federal workers, must await passage of a funding bill, now caught in an impasse between congressional Democrats and President Trump.

Officials said the recall was made because a “full team” is needed to address issues around the world, and out of concern for the financial hardship and uncertainty affecting State Department employees during the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

“As a national security agency, it is imperative that the Department of State carries out its mission,” Bill Todd, the deputy undersecretary for management, said in a statement.

It was unclear why the tasks performed by the State Department, with less than half of its employees currently furloughed, were deemed more important than the security functions of the Department of Homeland Security, which is also unfunded.

Todd’s assessment of what is “imperative” also appeared contrary to an initial department memorandum, dated Dec. 6, providing guidance in advance of a possible shutdown. Functions that might be continued without appropriations, the memo said, included those necessary for essential activities involving “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” and foreign policy activities specifically related to national security. Bureaus within the department were instructed to minimize the number of positions excepted, and furlough letters designated as nonessential those who were not required to show up for work without being paid.

Even with the furloughed employees recalled, the State Department still intends to resume work on a threadbare level. Employees are being asked to adhere to “strict budget constraints” on new funding for contracts, travel and other needs.

As with most government agencies, expenditures of money Congress appropriates for the State Department often are not made immediately. Funds are earmarked by lawmakers for specific purposes but may be doled out over time, leaving appropriated money waiting to be spent. But the government does not generally have the power to spend that money for other purposes unless appropriations and authorizing committees in both chambers of Congress are notified and approve shifting funds from one column to another.

Congressional aides said lawmakers have sent questions to the State Department asking, among other things, for the amounts of proposed funding transfers and what the money was originally approved for. None of that information was provided in the notification letter sent late Thursday.

Over the long term, the impression that the State Department has money to spare, and flexibility on how to use it, could create additional problems for a department whose budget some Republicans, including Trump, have indicated they believe is excessive.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that “morale is good” at the State Department during the shutdown despite the large number of furloughs. But many employees say their spirits have been sapped by having to work without pay until the shutdown officially ends. The hallways of the Truman Building in Foggy Bottom are extremely quiet, with many workers are doing their business remotely — in part so they do not have to pay for parking at a time when they have no paycheck coming in.

The furloughs at the State Department have added to frustrations inside the agency, which over the past two years has been sidelined from major policy decisions by the Trump administration.