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US lawmakers urge Tillerson to explain cuts

November 16, 2017

With waning US diplomatic power, lawmakers have called for an explanation from Washington's top diplomat. US President Donald Trump has vowed to cut costs at the State Department to offset increased defense spending.

A US flag at the US embassy in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Brakemeier

In a letter, two senior lawmakers on Wednesday called on US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to explain "questionable management practices" at the State Department, which they believe are undermining Washington's diplomatic clout across the globe.

US President Donald Trump's administration has prioritized major cuts to the country's diplomatic corps to offset a proposed hike to defense spending. The measures included enacting a hiring freeze and significantly decreasing promotion rates for senior Foreign Service officers.

Read more: 'Rapid loss' of US diplomats under Trump Administration prompts fears of weakened influence

Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said in the letter that declining morale, a lack of experienced leadership and reports that American diplomacy has become less credible "paint a disturbing picture."

"While we support reasonable steps to improve the efficiency of the State Department, such efforts must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing, not diminishing, American diplomacy," the senators wrote.

"The failure to replace losses from the ranks of the Foreign Service due to attrition and resignations with promotions and the recruitment of new entry-level officers appears to be intended to reduce staffing levels."

Even Rex Tillerson's supporters in Congress have expressed concern over his overhaul of the State Department
Even Rex Tillerson's supporters in Congress have expressed concern over his overhaul of the State DepartmentImage: Getty Images/M. Wilson

National security 'jeopardized'

Since January, the number of career ambassadors has dropped from five to two, while the number of "two-star" minister counselors has dropped by 42 percent, according to former US ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, who heads the American Foreign Service Association.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration's decision to cut costs at the State Department has been executed without a comprehensive plan and, as such, has threatened the country's national security.

Read more: Why Donald Trump's tweets box in the US

"Our national security is being jeopardized by the employment and career decisions being made at the State Department," Cardin told reporters on Wednesday.

Tillerson has previously addressed lawmakers' concerns, saying his plan to reorganize the State Department aims to save about five percent of the budget, amounting to $5 billion over the next five years.

ls/kl (Reuters, AP)