The State Department is running on fumes.
As the partial government shutdown stretches on with no clear end in sight, it’s affecting US embassy staff around the world — and making it harder for the US to conduct diplomacy abroad.
Many of the State Department’s roughly 75,000 employees — 50,000 are employed locally in US embassies abroad — have found trouble progressing with their work and even, in some cases, struggling to put food on the table while they wait for the White House and Congress to strike a deal. That’s a big problem, since the State Department is America’s leading foreign relations agency. It now means that American foreign policy is, at best, running on fumes.
The partial shutdown began in December, after President Donald Trump demanded around $5 billion for a border wall, a request Democrats have refused to comply with. The shutdown poses an optics problem for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is currently on a crucial trip to the Middle East to reassure allies that the US won’t fully withdraw from Syria. He and his wife — who has accompanied him to the region — will rely on the work of staff who aren’t getting paid to make the trip successful.
(Full disclosure: My wife works at the State Department.)
After speaking with seven State Department officials on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press (none of whom were my wife), I learned that many employees are struggling with the basics of everyday living, in addition to completing their work responsibilities. Together, they paint a picture of a vital workforce in professional and personal crisis — with no clear end in sight.
A State Department spokesperson told me, “The Department’s plan prioritizes both the protection of the United States’ critical national security interests and the safety of US citizens abroad,” adding that “the Department will carry out functions related to protecting national security, health, and life safety.”
But the way they’re able to do that right now is mainly because of uncompensated officials. “Morale is terrible as we work for no pay,” an experienced diplomat told me.
The shutdown is taking a toll on employees
Many State Department employees won’t get a paycheck next week if the shutdown doesn’t end on Thursday or Friday. That means some families will struggle to pay for rent, food, schooling, medicine, and more.
One diplomat I spoke to described watching an official in the State Department cafeteria get her credit card declined while trying to buy food. Another diplomat who was in Washington while training for an assignment in Asia told me he’s worried about his government-sponsored housing. “How long before the apartment complex I’m staying in throws me out because the State Department isn’t paying the bills?” he said.
Some diplomats have tried to find other work to make ends meet. One senior diplomat has resorted to reviewing eyeliner for money. After the Washington Post wrote a profile about her, she told me she “received messages and requests from desperate contractors and fellow colleagues asking for the contact info so that they can also get paid to submit reviews.”
She’s also aware of one colleague starting a bath salts business, and another pursuing part-time employment with a university, she said.
The State Department is struggling to do its job
On a typical day, the State Department’s headquarters in Washington and embassies abroad burst with officials working on key issues. That’s happening a lot less now: about 42 percent of US direct hire domestic employees and 26 percent of US direct hire overseas employees are furloughed.
“We are forced to curtail our activities,” a senior diplomat told me, adding that top officials are mostly restricted from speaking at public events or hosting receptions for outside visitors at US embassies. He says his own work is proceeding normally for now, but he’s noticed “there are many others who aren’t coming in to work.”
According to a different official, nearly a third of the employees in the roughly 30-person office charged with defeating ISIS can’t work. There are efforts to make some of those furloughed workers eligible for paid work during the shutdown, though. But that will only add stress to an office that saw its chief, Brett McGurk, resign in protest over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria last month.
According to the Pentagon, about 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in both Syria and Iraq.
The shutdown is also affecting diplomats training for future assignments.
A source who’s taking language classes at the government’s Foreign Service Institute to serve overseas told me that language classes have stopped. That’s a problem: Some diplomats will leave for their assignments within a week or two but don’t yet have the requisite language skills to speak with officials there.
“They’re going to be less proficient in the language, which makes it harder for them to do their jobs, which means they’ll struggle to protect and serve the nation,” the diplomat told me.
On top of that, new foreign service officers in Washington for training are basically in limbo, the official added. Some have taken to doing their own self-study. While that’s commendable, they of course receive no professional instruction or guidance about what life representing the United States abroad will be like.
However, one diplomat in a US embassy in the Middle East — the region Pompeo is visiting now — told me “everything keeps going” despite the shutdown. The biggest thing bothering officials in that mission, he added, was how long the shutdown would take or if they’ll receive their pay down the line.
Some of the people I spoke with expressed anger that their livelihoods are now threatened over a border wall fight. Interestingly, others don’t seem to mind too much. “I still prefer this to Trump getting a single penny for a wall,” one official said.
UPDATE: An original version of the piece said that the number of furloughed workers was unknown. It is known, and the article now has those numbers.