WASHINGTON – The State Department will soon offer $25,000 buyouts to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed Friday.
The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and civil service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time U.S. employees by 8 percent, or 1,982 people.
To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide.
Still, State Department accountants have told Tillerson that only about 1,341 people are expected to retire or quit by the end of September 2018, the date by which Tillerson has promised to complete the first round of cuts.
Indeed, rumors of a buyout have reduced the number of departures expected this year. So $25,000 will be given to the first 641 employees who agree to leave by April.
For top diplomats, a $25,000 buyout — which taxes would probably reduce to about $16,000 — is not enough to change career plans, so many have already left. The number of those carrying the department’s top two ranks — equivalent to four- and three-star generals — has dropped almost in half, from 39 to 21. And nearly 20 percent of those with two-star-equivalent ranks have signaled their intention to leave in what is an unprecedented exodus, according to an accounting provided by the American Foreign Service Association.
“Where is the mandate to pull the foreign service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?” Barbara Stephenson, the union’s president, asked in a letter to membership this week.
Tillerson is in the middle of a departmentwide reorganization, an effort he has called his top priority. But the staff reductions have nothing to do with that overhaul, according to those briefed on the plans.
Because the buyouts are voluntary, many who take the money and leave are likely to have skills or be in jobs that Tillerson hopes to maintain.
Instead, the cutbacks are meant to make a down payment on the 31 percent budget cut that President Donald Trump proposed for the department this year. That Congress rejected that suggestion and largely maintained the department’s budget has not affected Tillerson’s plans.
“These actions are going to harm our security and our ability to lead on the global stage,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
In September, when the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a bill to maintain the department’s funding at prior levels, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a statement saying, “Now is not the time for retreat, now is the time to double down on diplomacy and development.”
Asked about the many vacancies at the State Department, Trump said in an interview with Fox News: “You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson and I tell my people, ‘When you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with there.”