The State Department Integrity and Transparency Act aims to require more qualified candidates be appointed to ambassadorships, rather than an administration's campaign donors.

The State Department Integrity and Transparency Act aims to require more qualified candidates be appointed to ambassadorships, rather than an administration's campaign donors. NurPhoto / Getty Images

State Department’s top ranks need more career staff, senators say

Lawmakers look to promote a more merit-based system for top diplomats.

A group of Democratic senators is striving to ensure a more merit-based system in the awarding of top diplomatic roles, introducing a new bill to boost the rate of career employees who serve in such positions. 

The State Department Integrity and Transparency Act (S. 4476) would put new requirements on the composition of top appointments at the agency and create new qualifications for presidential nominees. Introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the bill would place new transparency measures on ambassador nominees in an attempt to limit the number of campaign donors who take the jobs. 

“It is imperative for United States national security that the Department of State is appropriately staffed by empowered, nonpartisan foreign policy professionals and thoroughly qualified and vetted political appointees,” the lawmakers wrote in their legislation. 

Diplomatic veterans and supporters of the career Foreign Service have long lamented presidents’ tendencies to reward campaign donors with ambassadorships and have fought to ensure more professionalized and qualified representatives abroad. Under President Trump, the rate of donors serving in ambassadorial roles spiked

Under the bill, State assistant secretary and ambassadorial nominees must submit reports to Congress on their qualifications. That would include their knowledge of the language in the region they are covering or serving in, as well as their understanding of its history, culture and politics.

The measure would create a new requirement that at least 75% of State’s assistant secretaries have served in the Senior Foreign Service or the Senior Executive Service. Sponsors of the bill noted that would bring State in line with the career staffing requirements at the Defense Department and CIA. 

The bill would build on existing requirements for any chief of mission to submit to Congress all political contributions they or their family members made and update the certification presidents must submit to Congress to declare the nominee as qualified for the job. The new document must assert that any campaign donation played no role in the individual’s selection. The senators said those provisions would ensure “competence, rather than contributions to political campaigns, is the primary qualification for the appointment.” 

The lawmakers are also looking to limit how long presidents can appoint sub-ambassadorial appointees to “cushy overseas assignments” without Senate approval. Individuals would only be able to serve in such special envoy-type positions for up to 90 days, and could only accept one such role per calendar year. 

“As China and Russia expand their global footprints and professionalize their diplomatic corps, this bill would help ensure our career diplomats and political appointees remain highly skilled and empowered to confront the growing number of complex challenges around the globe,” Kaine said. 

Merkely noted that a “strong, experienced workforce” is essential to the functioning of all federal agencies. 

“This bill ensures the State Department—the face of American diplomacy—will have the best possible foreign policy professionals working to protect our national security and interests overseas,” Merkley said. 

Tom Yazdgerdi, a Senior Foreign Service office and president of the American Foreign Service Association, threw his organization's support behind the bill. 

"We appreciate Sen. Kaine's efforts with this legislation, which AFSA supports, to strengthen the career Foreign Service at very senior levels of the State Department," Yazdgerdi said. "Professional diplomats, trained in diplomacy, and in the language and culture of the countries in which they serve, have proven that they are effective at carrying out U.S. foreign policy."