Senators press Tillerson on potential State Department cuts

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A bipartisan pair of senators is pressing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the nascent plans to reorganize the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), warning of the potential for damaging reductions to foreign assistance.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wrote to Tillerson on Thursday, according to a letter shared with The Hill, asking for a briefing on his reorganization plans, which were triggered by an executive order that President Trump signed in March. 

“We support reforms to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),” the senators wrote.

{mosads}“We are concerned, however, by reports of plans to cut thousands of positions at State Department and USAID and to eliminate missions worldwide, prior to undertaking this strategic review and identifying associated foreign policy objectives,” they wrote.

The March 13 order directed Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief, to come up with a plan to “reorganize government functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies” by drawing on proposals from agency heads to reorganize their respective functions, produced within six months.

While Tillerson has not gone public with any reorganization plans, Foreign Policy reported in April on an internal State Department document that detailed the administration’s plans to cut foreign assistance to developing countries. 

Wade Warren, the acting USAID administrator, reportedly informed employees earlier this year that the White House could merge USAID with the State Department to comply with the executive order.

USAID is an independent agency distinct from the State Department, though it receives its overall foreign policy guidance from the secretary of State. The agency, established in 1961, works with foreign countries to end poverty, protect human rights, improve education and global health, and other goals. 

Both agencies worked together to mobilize aid to West Africa in response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. 

The Trump administration has already signaled a desire to impose deep cuts on both agencies. The fiscal 2018 budget proposal released last month would allocate $37.6 billion to the State Department and USAID, marking a 29 percent reduction from the current fiscal year. 

State has defended the request as evidence of Trump’s “commitment to a leaner, more efficient government.”

According to Thursday’s letter, Van Hollen and Sullivan are requesting a briefing from Tillerson on his reorganization plans within the next 30 days. They also want additional information about the “rationale” behind any organizational changes, including proposals to eliminate or combine any offices.

The senators want Tillerson to produce a “regional assessment” of how proposed organizational changes support U.S. foreign policy goals, in addition to an assessment of how any changes would specifically impact U.S. efforts to root out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

Van Hollen and Sullivan together co-chair the newly launched Senate Foreign Service Caucus. 

“We write to underscore that our nation depends on the State Department to confront challenges worldwide,” the senators wrote. “American diplomatic engagement abroad translates directly into the security and prosperity of Americans at home, a point consistently supported by our military leaders.”

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