Spending bills threaten Foreign Service pay and hiring

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Legislation that significantly reduces Foreign Service pay would hinder the State Department's ability to conduct its mission, observers say.

The Senate Appropriations committee late last month approved a funding bill for 2012 that would cut State's budget by 8 percent, while the House Appropriations committee is holding on to legislation that would reduce funding by 18 percent next year.

For diplomatic and consular programs, including the account that pays Foreign Service salaries, Senate lawmakers recommended $6.87 billion, a decline of $1.89 billion compared with fiscal 2011. On the House side, the same fund would get only $5.66 billion, a drop of $3.11 billion.

The House bill also would cancel State's authority to provide comparability pay for federal workers posted abroad. Foreign Service employees for years did not receive locality pay while on overseas assignments until Congress in 2009 began phasing in annual increases to close a 24 percent gap with Washington-area employees. Federal workers in posts abroad saw a 16 percent boost over 2009 and 2010. Lawmakers in April extended funding for the increases to 16.52 percent but barred State from using fiscal 2011 money to implement the third phase of the plan. The Senate version would provide funds for continuing phases one and two only.

According to American Foreign Service Association President Susan Johnson, threats to Foreign Service officer pay are particularly harmful because families usually lose the possibility of a second income when posted overseas and face rising health care and living costs. Cuts also hurt morale and State's ability to recruit and retain employees, she said.

Hiring at both State and the U.S. Agency for International Development would take a hit under the proposals. House lawmakers would not provide funding for an additional 184 planned new hires at State, noting that the agency has hired 1,622 Foreign Service officers and 1,001 civilian workers above attrition since 2008. Both bills halt new hiring for Foreign Service positions at USAID, where 820 additional Foreign Service officers have come on board since 2008.

The House legislation would reduce USAID's funding by $488 million compared with fiscal 2011, while the Senate would cut just $96.3 million.

Observers say steep budget cuts -- and pay and hiring freezes in particular -- could impede State's diplomatic readiness and compromise national security. During a speech last week, Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary at State's Bureau of Political Military Affairs, said the House proposal could be especially detrimental.

Johnson agreed, noting it is easier to rebuild programs that have been underfunded than to bring back people.

"There's no point in giving us missions and then not giving us funding to do them adequately," Johnson said. "If you're going to cut, cut programs, not people."

"If further cuts are made, then I think the Foreign Service is perfectly willing to share in the sacrifice if made across-the-board," she added. "We won't welcome it, but it'll be much easier to accept and soldier on."

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