Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Appropriations hearing on May 21 about  President Biden's proposed 2025 budget request for the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a Senate Appropriations hearing on May 21 about President Biden's proposed 2025 budget request for the State Department. Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

State Department warns of significant risks due to ongoing budget pressures

State's top appropriator says he will try to make FY25 as "minimally harmful" as possible for the department, but Secretary Blinken cautions an already understaffed workforce would suffer without more resources.

The head of the State Department is warning he will have to make “fundamental tradeoffs” as it is forced to deal with reduced funding levels, something he cautioned would be exacerbated without the added resources President Biden has requested in his most recent budget. 

State is still working to rebuild its workforce after it sustained dramatic losses under the previous administration and Secretary Antony Blinken lamented that his department is facing understaffing across the world. The department is now responding to a 5% cut to its fiscal 2024 budget compared to the previous year and is pushing back on potentially seeing a similar reduction next fiscal year. 

“As we've looked at it, we have to make fundamental tradeoffs among these big ticket items,” Blinken told a panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. 

He noted the progress State has made in hastening the processing of passports and improvements in consular services in recent years could be unwound if the department is forced to absorb further cuts. Plans to open new passport centers would stall, Blinken said, harming Americans' capacity to travel around the world. 

Americans can now receive their passports six-to-eight weeks after sending in an application, or in two-to-three weeks if they pay an extra $60 for expedited service. State issued 24 million passports in fiscal 2023, a record that outpaced its then-unprecedented fiscal 2022 total by 9%. That marked significant progress from fiscal 2021 when the average wait time grew to 18 weeks.

The passport office has increased staffing levels by 12%, mandated significant use of overtime and solicited volunteers from throughout the department to assist with the backlogs. 

Biden’s fiscal 2025 budget blueprint proposed State and the U.S. Agency for International Development receive $64.4 billion in fiscal 2025, which would mark a 10% increase from the current total. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who chaired Tuesday’s hearing, said after the hearing concluded he would "push hard" to get an allocation for State that is "as minimally harmful as possible." He noted that he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the top Republican on the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, would advocate for an increase, but it would be a "challenge to figure out how we can move forward without cuts." 

Congress is currently operating under the spending caps instituted by the two-year budget deal included in the Fiscal Responsibility Act. 

Blinken said State is attracting and working to retain the “best possible talent” by investing in its people in Washington and abroad. He added the Foreign Service recently saw two of its largest incoming classes ever, an accomplishment he called "gratifying" but incomplete. 

“It takes a while for people to work their way through to a point where they're taking on these very important positions, and we do have real gaps that we're trying to rectify,” Blinken said. “Ultimately, we have to have a department that not only pays to attract the talent, but that retains it and supports it as it goes up the ladder in these jobs.”

Staffing shortages have impacted a wide range of the department’s responsibilities, the secretary said, including ensuring Israel is using U.S.-provided weapons in alignment with international law, filling European Affairs jobs and cutting the wait time for first-time foreign travelers seeking entry into the United States. 

The secretary has boasted of his efforts to improve working conditions for the department’s employees, including launching a new policy ideas channel, reinvigorating its dissent channel, creating a global base pay rate for all locally employed staff at embassies around the world and expanding eligibility for student loan repayment. He has also rolled out a “retention unit” that will look for avenues to convince employees to have long-term careers at State.

The civil service at State had suffered the second largest losses of any department under President Trump—more than 10% of employees headed for the exits without replacements—though the Biden administration has found some success in rebuilding its rolls.