Dem senator: State Dept assures lawmakers hiring freeze will ebb

Dem senator: State Dept assures lawmakers hiring freeze will ebb
© Greg Nash

The State Department recently assured senators from both parties that a freeze on hiring imposed by Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE will soon thaw, Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDozens of Democrats call for spending bill to pass 'climate test' GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden set to restore national monuments rolled back by Trump MORE (D-Md.) said this week.

During an interview for The Hill’s Power Politics podcast, Van Hollen said he and Alaska Republican Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP leaders escalate battle against COVID-19 vaccine mandates Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters GOP senators call on Biden to back down from vaccine mandates MORE, co-founders last year of the Senate’s Foreign Service Caucus, learned from Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan during a recent meeting that hiring restrictions at the department are easing.

“The assurances we received from the deputy secretary were positive,” Van Hollen said. “It was a productive meeting.”

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“They’ve kept in place since the beginning of last year a hiring freeze,” he explained during Wednesday’s interview. “It has really damaged their ability to recruit folks. In fact, the number of people who want to join the State Department has gone way down because the prospects of joining the Foreign Service have been diminished.”

When asked to describe assurances senators received, Van Hollen said the department will be “working on changes,” even as a smaller State Department remains an administration goal.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be eliminated all at once, but we’re going to, I believe, see a change there,” he added.

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The Maryland Democrat’s father was a Foreign Service officer and his mother specialized in Russia issues at the State Department. Van Hollen was born in Pakistan and has lived in India, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

He echoed lawmakers from both parties who complain that U.S. national security and leadership globally are being undercut by the administration’s policies to reduce the size of the State Department, including the career Foreign Service. A loss of confidence in Tillerson’s management and Trump’s policies contribute to a continued exodus of midcareer diplomats in recent months, critics charge.

Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has called the U.S. diplomatic corps “beacons of hope around the world.”

“It’s very discouraging to watch what has been an ongoing effort, whether deliberate or not… to undermine the Foreign Service, and in doing so really undermining a lot of the diplomatic efforts around the world,” the senator told The Hill. “We need a strong defense, but we need strong diplomacy to go with it. And you’re seeing real damage to morale in the State Department.”

Last month, Tillerson announced a partial easing of a hiring freeze on “eligible family members” of diplomatic personnel stationed around the world. Officials clarified after his townhall remarks that while the freeze on hiring of spouses at U.S. embassies was rescinded, hiring restrictions on non-family members remained in place.

The duration of Tillerson’s service remains a subject of lively speculation inside the department and at the White House, although the former CEO dismissed media accounts last year that Trump sought to push him out in order to replace him, possibly with CIA Director Mike PompeoMike PompeoObama looks to give new momentum to McAuliffe The CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Biden, Trump tied in potential 2024 match-up: poll MORE.

Van Hollen said he voted against Tillerson’s nomination last year. He now regards the secretary’s “conduct of foreign policy” as a welcome “check on the worst impulses of the president,” even as Trump “seems determined to override the judgment of Secretary Tillerson at every juncture,” and despite what the senator perceives as the secretary’s management “mistakes” with personnel. 

Asked if he hopes Tillerson will resign in 2018, to make way for a successor in 2018, Van Hollen demurred.

“I’ve not heard a name that gives me any more confidence,” he said.

Power Politics, hosted by The Hill’s Alexis Simendinger, is available Saturday mornings.

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