Angry Congress? Who’s Fault is That? And Here DiploPundit Gets a Scolding …

One of my blog pals scolded me on a serious error in my recent blog post (see Angry Lawmakers Care About the Foreign Service. Seriously. When It’s Convenient!). The lawmakers are political opportunists with more stripes than a zebra but since she has an excellent point, I’ll let you listen to the scolding:

A (I imagine her wagging her finger at me):

State doesn’t want attention from Congress.  The result is a Congress that does not understand State’s mission.

Me: (small voice) Uh-huh, isn’t there a State Dept liaison office in Congress?


It takes two to tango and in this case, State rarely goes to the ballroom.  When State does get near the dance floor, it often steps on its own feet.

Me: Wearing the wrong shoes?

A (ignores me totally):

When State does go to the Hill, compare the general quality of their testimony with that of their military counterparts.  We know the quality of communication matters, even if both sides continue to disagree.  (Call it public diplomacy with the Hill if you want.)

On the quality of the testimony, the Libya hearings provides an immediate example.  Two State people + two military.  Both military were clear in content, substance, and delivery.  On the State side, only Kennedy excelled in all areas with Lamb coming up short across the board.  

Me: (mumble) But those military guys get lots of practice briefing their generals (mumble).


How do you think the military developed a constituency? Most ascribe that to the military-industrial complex, and while that is a large factor, it creates opportunities not the relationship itself.  The military actively courts the Congress.  Since the 40’s (or late 30’s), it has played one master against the other.  It has realized that it helps to keep the Hill informed.  How do you get money and authorities from a group of lawmakers that have no idea what you do?  Defense is constantly reminded of this.  When budget cuts are threatened, the Pentagon quickly engages members and staff.  The Pentagon and the Hill are no strangers to each other.  State and the Hill, on the other hand, is something else.

Me:  When you put it like that, it seems like State and the Hill are a series of one night stands. Maybe Alec should have stayed home and helped develop a culture of developing constituency in Congress right there in Foggy Bottom?


That the Hill doesn’t know or care about State is largely State’s problem.  Legislative Affairs (H) is more interested with preventing information from moving between the two bodies than increasing understanding and partnership.  Who in Foggy Bottom can you identify has good relationships, either professional or personal, with Hill staff or members (yes, plural)?

Me:  Who?  Well. Um … they don’t sign out with me when they’re doing their engaging over there.  But … oh, wait, there’s an entire bureau working on that.  State says that “H facilitates effective communication between State Department officials and the Members of Congress and their staffs.” In fact since 2001, it has a Capitol Hill House Liaison Office in the Rayburn House Office Building and the Senate Liaison Office since 2010 in the Senate Russell Office Building.  Here is what it says:

Both offices provide a full range of State Department support services to members of Congress and their staff. In particular, it provides services related to consular affairs and travel by members of Congress. In fact, there are two full time Foreign Service Officer who are Consular Affairs specialist and available to assist with questions related to visas and passports.

Oops!  Damn! Primarily just for CODELs?…. isn’t that like the Pentagon having an office in Congress just for miljets?

A – how come I just know that you’re going to ruin my happy, bubbly day?


In terms of the Hill committees, there is the problem of HFAC and SFRC not being known as effective committees.  That does not mean State should ignore them or ignore the Hill.  In most cases, the real power, with regard to foreign operations then, is with the appropriators.  But getting legislation to the appropriators requires going through the authorizers.  Beyond these committees, it would generally behoove State to actively engage the rest of the Congress because you never know when one might change committees or make a public statement.  After all, State truly does have constituents all over the country across all sectors of American life, not just the military-industrial complex like the Pentagon: exchange students, support for businesses operating overseas, tourism, relationships with NGOs based in the US that operate overseas, national security, and more.

Me:  See? There. I know she’s going to get me one of these days.  😥

Oh, hey, would it help if FSOs blog about their lives overseas beyond the perfect PD moments and not get eaten by State Department tigers?

Or maybe some senior FSOs reassigned to Foggy Bottom can adopt a congressman or a senator?

State can start with Larry Schwartz, the Public Affairs officer from the US Embassy Cairo who ignited a political firestorm for his condemnation (cleared with the embassy’s acting ambassador) of a YouTube video that mocked the Prophet Muhammad.  Heard that he had just been “relocated” to WashDC, perfect timing. I should mention that Mr. Schwartz’s boss who reportedly cleared that statement had prior experience with the House International Relations Committee and would have been an ideal candidate to adopt Congressman Jordan or Gawdy, too.  Except that he remains stuck in Cairo.

A?  A? Where are you?  She’s a dear pal, but she can only take so much of me sometimes especially when I’m being scolded ….and I get all 😮



15 responses

  1. I’ll never forget the presentation given to our A-100 class by the FSO in charge of the Hill office. The officer had a tick which involved him deeply clearing his throat every 10-15 seconds like clockwork. I hope he was able to overcome this challenge and do a great job advocating for and explaining the DOS, but that was one of the most memorable briefings and it wasn’t thanks to the substance. Maybe it was my own fault/shallowness for being unable to ignore the tick.

    • BG! Glad to see you visit! I understand that the office at the Senate and the House each has an FSO. But the question really is — how good are these assignments? I think that dictates typically how good are the FSOs who bid on these positions. If these assignments are like a half-way stop on your way to Paris (bureaucratic parking like HR) or a bridge assignment until the more important assignment commenced, that’s a problem right there and then.

  2. Pingback: Roundup of stuff about Benghazi | Hal O’Brien – 林白山

  3. Agree 100%. I once went to H offering to speak to Congressmen interested in what State is doing in a highly militarized post. H told me something along the lines of, “Thanks, but now is not a good time.” I never heard back on when would be a good time…

    • Seigs, you’re the second person to tell me today that H was going to call back and never did. That’s not good. It takes the whole building to work on Congress, but I doubt if that’s going to happen.

  4. So true. No one outside of DOS understands the DOS mission especially Congress. Everyone knows what DOD does. To Congress a FSO is someone who sets up meetings when they travel or gives them per diem. AFSA too does a poor job of talking to Congress on behalf of DOS and the Foreign Service.

    • Doesn’t have to be that way. January 2012 excuse me, 2013 is an opportunity when a new Congress is seated; every CODEL is an opportunity to engage … but not sure every FSOs from note takers to control officers have an idea on how to do that. State typically sends junior officers to do CODELs. If you are looking to engage with your sole funders, I think you ought to send your senior officers.

      • I knew what you meant. I agree with this but Mission staff are usually junior on these CODELS as to not interrupt daily activities perhaps even use staff from that state if available. It should be senior or mid-levels expaining the DOS mission. As more and more of the foreign service become non-DOS, if Congress doesn’t know the mission they won’t provide the funds.

  5. There was actually only one military member testifying: Lieutenant Colonel Wood . The other individual was Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom. He is a DS Agent and a Foreign Service Officer just like Charlene Lamb. I’d be willing to bet he had to prepare to testify without the assistance of the Department of State.

    I do agree, however, that State does itself no favors in how it engages the legislative branch. While it is easy for the DOD to point to a soldier and say, “He or she protects you. That’s what you’re money buys the country,” it is much harder to point to (for example) a PAO and say, “He or she engages foreign populations in educational outreach and public engagement designed to slowly but systemically develop society-wide fundamental understandings of democracy and rule of law which will be critical in developing democratic and ultimately U.S.-friendly governmental institutions at some unknown and unpredictable time in the future.”

    It’s even tougher when State avoids the conversation…

    • JD – You’re right. Colonel Wood is National Guard. And RSO Nordstrom who is a DS agent was previously a federal law enforcement with the Department of Treasury. Charlene Lamb was previously RSO but since she’s a DAS it must have been quite sometime back when she served as RSO. I think Nordstrom was asked during the hearing if State helped him write his prepared testimony and he said no. When he was asked if State saw his testimony, I thought he said yes (I can’t remember which part of the 4 hour hearing this happened). I am guessing that all witnesses unless they’re no longer part of the building probably have the assistance of the Legislative Bureau. Or at least, I would be surprised if they did not go through that bureau.

    • Neither Nordstrom nor Lamb are Foreign Sevice Officers. They’re both Specialists. Despite State’s recent feel good campaign, not all of us are Officers.

      • Thanks, Donny. You had a feel good campaign? I recognize the distinction, and I think I’ve consistently referred to Nordstrom as RSO but I may have overlooked some. I’ll look again and will correct as needed.

  6. The only time State had good relations with the Hill was during the tenure of Sec. Powell. His marching orders were: “Forget H. You’re the experts, make sure you know your facts, and go up there and brief.” As a mid-level officer, I had regular contact with the Hill staffers, gained a much deeper understanding of their concerns and priorities, and had real traction when it came to advancing our foreign-policy agenda with them. Those were the good old days, and I hope that they will return sometime soon.

    • JBZ – Probably because he had the Pentagon mindset. Might happen again under a Kerry tenure if there is one. Although the current secretary also came from the Senate and yes, she seemed well received in the Senate, but her personal relationships there did not translate into an institutional bridge. On the other hand, what would happen if the Petreaus comes to Foggy Bottom?