Sixty-four-year-old diplomatic advisory body dies quiet death
With little fanfare, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which since 1948 has evaluated agency effectiveness in communicating with foreign publics, closed shop last month, having failed to win reauthorization in Congress' omnibus spending bill.
"Our reauthorization for two years was blocked in the Senate," Matt Armstrong, who served as executive director since March but left his office housed at a State Department annex on Dec. 23, told Government Executive.
"Because of our broad reach, we have in the last eight months worked mostly in the background and often acted as a bridge-builder connecting agencies and individuals who otherwise may not have known each other existed; the result is greater efficiencies in government," he said.
Mark Helmke, minority press secretary for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had sought to get the commission reauthorized, but Republican senators led by Rand Paul of Kentucky blocked the effort.
"It's been on the cusp of being cut for more than a dozen years," he said, noting that its slots were empty for long periods during the George W. Bush administration and that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had "questioned the validity of some of its reports." Lugar, however, believed in "another set of eyes on U.S. foreign policy," Helmke added. "But it's hard to do work when you can't get people nominated."
It was Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who actually placed a hold on the reauthorization, as confirmed by his press secretary John Hart. "The sponsors neglected to pay for the commission," he said. "Dr. Coburn routinely holds bills that spend new money without cutting spending somewhere else. We have a $15 trillion debt because Congress refuses to make choices between competing priorities."
As recently as Oct. 12, 2011, the committee held a nomination hearing that included consideration of Anne Terman Wedner of Illinois, who joined the commission.
Armstrong, who has resumed his long-established blog on international communication (MountainRunner.us) while looking for work, said reauthorization was blocked "not because of recent performance or requirements on our services or our true cost or value. Our operating budget, which covered everything from travel to business cards to a white board in the office, was $135,000 a year."
The seven-member commission, which was operating with one vacancy, is "the only organization authorized by Congress with presidential appointments confirmed by the Senate to oversee and appraise U.S government activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics," he said. "What makes us different from an inspector general is that we are also an advocate for those activities: `We're from the government and we're here to help' could really be our motto."
Because of the commission's mission, "we were not constrained by legislative affairs and we had direct access to the Hill," Armstrong said, noting that he often spent entire days with lawmakers. "As an organization supporting the Congress, the president and the secretary of State, we had direct access to the executive branch agencies well as the Congress. There is no other organization that has the same purview, mission, or access to provide comprehensive advice that is not married to any one agency. An alternative to the commission simply does not exist."
He said he had expanded the small staff to include a Marine lieutenant colonel on loan and two interns and had been working to bring in a Foreign Service officer "on tour." Armstrong was the only federal employee who lost a job.
In describing the commission, the State Department's website says that its reports and symposiums provide "honest appraisals and informed discourse on" efforts by U.S. officials interacting with key overseas citizens to "increase global awareness and understanding of our values, policies and activities," it said.
"Whereas in the past a single agency was responsible for facilitating and shaping public awareness and perception of the U.S., today this is a whole-of-government affair."
Asked for comment, State's Office of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said only, "the Congress did not reauthorize the commission."
Sen. Paul's office did not comment before publication time.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the age of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. It existed for 64 years.