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A Blog on Understanding, Informing, Empowering, and Influencing Global Publics, published by Matt Armstrong

Understanding State’s Budget Woes

Andrew Exum at CNAS blames – only somewhat tongue in cheek – the absence of federal money creating jobs in Congressional districts for the State Department’s budget woes. His point, of course, is that Congress sees little direct benefit from State’s activities. My friend draws additional insight from Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams and their highlight of an operational difference between State and the Defense Department:

The State Department’s dominant culture — the Foreign Service — takes pride in [the department's] traditional role as the home of US diplomacy. Diplomats represent the United States overseas, negotiate with foreign countries, and report on events and developments. Diplomats, from this perspective, are not foreign assistance providers, program developers, or managers. As a result, State did not organize itself internally to plan, budget, manage, or implement the broader range of US global engagement … State department culture focuses on diplomacy, not planning, program development and implementation.

This is evident across the board at State, including, but not limited to, inadequate budgeting processes and systems, rigid hierarchies, and cultural bias against outside advice.

Below is a quick list of some of the other substantive issues I’ve talked in various public and private forums:

Failure to engage Congress through formal channels. State’s relationship with Congress that is, at best, tentative and at worse, adversarial. While State now has two offices on the Hill, one on the Senate side and the other on the House side, State’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, or “H”, remains largely reactive by all accounts. The House office, to give a superficial example, is, especially compared to its hallway neighbors and erstwhile competitors – Army, Navy/Marines, Air Force, Veterans Affairs, etc – dark and uninviting. “H” must proactively engage, not just communicate with, Congress.

Failure to engage Congress through informal channels. Despite the efforts of Legislative Affairs at the Defense Department, Hill staffers frequently engage members of the Defense community (usually but not exclusively political appointees) in informal discussions. These relationships build a rapport and contribute to a shared understanding of the interests and requirements of the other. In other forums, it would be called public diplomacy (arguably, it is considering cultural and linguistic differences and visits that are very much like ‘exchanges’). With regards to State, this informal engagement is nearly non-existent with detrimental results.

In other words, State fails to conduct diplomacy, private or public, with Congress.

Failure of Congress to engage State. Whereas the Defense department has come to realize the importance of Congress to its funding and authorities, the State Department apparently does not, except around budget time. Congress, for its part, fails to exercise its authority over the department to push for change. A simple example of this difference is an Armed Services Committee (ASC) can mobilize Defense through a committee report. As a ASC reports includes insightful and strong language and tasks that are responded to. On the contrary, the Committees on Foreign Affairs, in the House, and Foreign Relations, in the Senate, on the other hand, do not enjoy the same relationship, which is reflected in committee reports that do not include actionable language but at best encouragement because the oversight function is weak compared to the ASCs. Congress must begin to exercise its authority if for the only reason it will be required to reform State.

Silence from State’s Congressional Committees. It’s just not ‘sexy’ to talk about State’s activities and requirements, but it should and could be considering the importance the President and the Secretaries of Defense and State (and to less visible extent of Agriculture, Commerce, and Homeland Security) have put on international engagement (which goes beyond public diplomacy and strategic communication). How many know the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committees or the Senate Foreign Relations Committees compared to the Armed Services Committees? What about the different Appropriations sub-committees that cover State and Defense (Foreign Operations and Defense, respectively)? The major, and at times seemingly only, champion for State’s activities, notably but not exclusively in the area of public diplomacy, is Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). Sen. Kaufman (D-DE) is a fast rising voice as well. On the Armed Services side, there are plenty of members who are frequently engaging the public on issues.

Lack of Inter-disciplinary knowledge in Congress. The recently created Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Caucus (and here) in the House of Representatives is a step forward, but it not enough. It is important to note that this caucus is chaired by two members of the House Armed Services Committee, not the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Further, there are no members in the House that are members of both the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees. Coordination between these committees must be increased. In the Senate, things are bit better as there are three Senators on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee: Kaufman, Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Jim Webb (D-VA). There is no cross-pollination in the appropriations committees on either side of the Hill. Congressional stovepipes must be broken down.

Absence of Serious Outside Advisory Capacity. Whereas the Defense Department has the Defense Science Board, the State Department has the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The reports by the DSB are relevant, read closely, and cited year after year (personally I have to reread them just to keep up with my own conversations on the Hill). The reports by the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy are few – every two years to satisfy the minimum requirement established by Congress – and only once in the last decade or more relevant (and even that relevant report has largely been forgotten as the Commission failed to revisit, update, or advance it since its release two years ago). The utility of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy to State, the Congress, the White House, and even Defense and other departments, and to the public to provide informed and relevant insights and actionable recommendations cannot be understated. Consistent, focused, and deep analysis of the relevant issues is essential to raise the quality of the discourse, highlight the challenges and create the imperative for action. Weaved through this subset of issues is a theme of Andrew’s post: State remains focused on overseas operations. However, State must pay attention to and engage Congress and stop shying away from “opening the kimono” to let Congress know what it does and doesn’t do and why. If Congress is to fund (and stop defunding) State, it requires greater awareness of State’s purpose, requirements, and limitations, especially those that must be overcome. State cannot continue to rely on the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other members of the uniformed community to ask Congress for money and authorities to build capacity and capabilities to fulfill current and future requirements.

State has a role in making sure the discourse over its purpose and activities become more public, and thus a higher profile, and more informed. The President and the American people require it. Guns and bombs do not create or sustain peace.

  • ACNonPro says:

    Great run down. thanks. It’s fascinating how Congressional staff seem to think they know enough to muck around in the details of State issues cuz they backpacked in Europe or whatever but don’t apply same critical scrutiny to DoD budgets.
    It must be “worry about State’s budget” day! Over at Stimson budget project an analysis of the risks of DoD funding.
    http://budgetinsight.wordpress.com/2010/05/13/relying-on-the-kindness-of-others-a-risky-partner-building-strategy/
    A good assessment of the problems with Congress is this:
    http://csis.org/publication/steep-hill

    May 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm
  • GLGarland says:

    Congress may be the immediate theme of your posting, but the discussion should turn to the question of how State deals with what it calls “outreach”–communication with actual and potential constituencies: the bread and butter of any congressional office.
    On paper at State, outreach sits inside PA in the Office of Public Liaison, and thus under the nominal authority of R. Congressional liaison of course is located in an entirely different chain of command. And much of the real grunt work of outreach goes on outside the R hierachy in the geographical and functional bureaus, within PDPA offices that report to assistant secretaries. Thousands of citizen activists around the country know this by first-hand experience.
    Yet, this reality is largely overlooked in public debates and within the department itself. Deal with this institutionally and culturally as most other agencies did long ago, and then you have a foundation for a dynamic relationship with the Hill.

    May 14, 2010 at 6:01 am
  • Consul-At-Arms says:

    The State Department has no (or little, which amounts to the same thing) domestic political constituency. We don’t create jobs in anybody’s district (aside from the various domestic passport centers, which is another subject). And most of the time nobody writes, emails, or calls their congressional representative unless they’re seeking help with a problem they’re having with the State Department.
    Fortunately, most of the legislative staff who deal with State Department on behalf of their constituents quickly learn that we don’t capriciously create problems and obstacles for their constituents. Most of the time the problems are actually the creation of the constituent themselves, and State Department folks (usually consular officers) are either simply following the laws that Congress itself passed or are limited in what they can do by either budgetary constraints (also an artifact of Congress) or reality itself (i.e., foreign courts and police forces don’t actually work for the United States, so I can’t order them to release someone just because they’re American).
    This is why I take every opportunity I can to help create at least a shadow of a glimmer of a domestic constituency whenever I get the chance. You’re a college professor or church leader bringing a gaggle of your students or parishioners to my consular district and you’d like a quick tour of the embassy or consulate while you’re in country? If I can spare someone for even an hour, I can make it happen. I’ve got a relatively brief Powerpoint presentation kept up-to-date, can reserve a meeting room, and if you’ll get me everyone’s passport information ahead of time then embassy security can pre-clear your group.
    And then I get an hour to tell some congressman’s constituents what the State Department does for them and for the country.
    I’ve also learned to not be shy about telling people who are thanking me about something I or my staff has done for them that, yes, I appreciate their thanks but if they’re really grateful it’d be even better if they dropped their congressman or senator an email or postcard. I generally add that other people are never slow to send complaints about the things they don’t like, so it’s just good citizenship to ensure their representative is getting the whole picture.
    It’s constituency building at the micro level, in the field, which is not the aim of Matt’s post, but you have to start somewhere.
    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here, with comments: http://consul-at-arms2.blogspot.com/2010/06/re-understanding-states-budget-woes.html

    June 1, 2010 at 8:18 am

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