The 111th Congress – A Make or Break for the Foreign Service?

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The 111th United States Congress was sworn in yesterday. There are 256 Democrats, 178 Republicans and 1 vacant seat (vacated by Rahm Emanuel) in the U.S. House of Representatives and 55 Democrats, 41 Republicans, 2 Independents (who plan to caucus with Democrats) and 2 disputed seats in the U.S. Senate. Hopefully, the writers of the Illinois and Minnesota Senate soap operas will not go on strike and will discover a fitting conclusion to the real-life drama unfolding before our eyes. My sense is if you’re 71, you probably don’t really want to be a junior senator. You don’t get preferential treatment, your desk is nowhere near the front in the Senate chamber, you don’t get that corner office, and nobody really cares what you think, only how you vote. Where’s the fun in that? Now, for the Minnesota race, would the loser please just concede already; it’s the most gentlemanly thing to. Would you really want to go down in history as the sorest loser of all time? Get over it already.

(:-) Don’t blame me if I want the writers to include these in their scripts. I’d like my 111th to get to work already. And don’t really want the riddikulus and rictumsempra exhibited in tandem right there on the Hill. I mean it.

At the risk of sounding too dramatic, the 111th Congress is probably a make or break for the Foreign Service particularly in terms of funding and revitalizing the Service at this crucial point. Well, sure, the FS is a bureaucracy and it will live on whether it is appropriately funded or not; but the “we get what we pay for” maxim is nowhere truer than here and now. That and the actual possibility of real experience sailing out into the sunset in the next 5 years should be worrisome to our leadership. Until scientists discover an embeddable chip for diplomatic skills or a wearable universal translator, additional staffing also means training time. Those 1,076 new positions that they like talking about — we’ll be lucky if they’re deployed overseas by the end of 2010; if they get funded this year, that is.
I don’t know who is in line to replace Matthew Reynolds as Assistant Secretary at “H” but whoever he/she will be might want to read up a bit on the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection. I think what Ambassador MacArthur says about dealing with Congress is both insightful and instructive:

[…] after I was well into two years of my life on Capitol Hill as Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, I took a canvas of about 180 senators and congressmen about how much time they spent on foreign affairs. The consensus of those 180-odd gentlemen was that with the exception of people on special committees like the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House, the average congressman and senator spent less than 2% of his time on foreign affairs.
If I may, I’d like to talk about the importance of congressional relationship–that is, a relationship between the Department of State, particularly, and the Congress, because of this very reason, whereas local or national issues are the issues on which the Congress at that time spent the overwhelming majority of its time and were well informed. They were not so well informed and didn’t spend so much time, less than 2%, on international affairs.
I think the most important principle that anybody that deals with the Congress for the executive branch to observe is honesty and frankness with the members of the Congress. They never forgive somebody from the executive branch that misleads them, lies to them, and gives them an impression which later turns out to be quite incorrect. In my dealings with the Congress, this is the reason why I explained to Secretary [Dean] Rusk that I must be in on the inner circle, because I could deliberately mislead members of the Congress if I didn’t know the direction in which the thinking was going, even if the final decision had not been made. When you go over to Congress, they say to you, “What about this article I read in such and such a paper this morning about the administration doing this in the field of foreign affairs?” And if you don’t know what’s happening and the direction in which the Department is leading in a discussion of that article, you might undeliberately mislead them.

Source: Ambassador Douglas MacArthur, II
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs (ADST)
Oral History Project │ Interview on December 15, 1986

There really are some great learning stories in that collection. You can read more here. Of course, it goes without saying that the effectiveness of “H” can only go so far in Congress. I think that the Secretary of State’s leadership and persuasion skills plus personal relationships with members of Congress is what it all comes down to in the end. Her effectiveness is absolutely tied to her resource gathering talents and effective diplomatic engagement in Capitol Hill. Without juice, you could flap all you want – nothing gets off the ground.