Dear State Department, Can You Please Keep Your Deputy Spokesperson In The Loop!

— By Domani Spero

We are on Day 4 of the shutdown.   Except for the employees from the Inspector General Office (and the International Water Boundary Commission) who were furloughed on the first day of the shutdown, the State Department is open and operational.  Naturally, folks are interested on two things: 1) how long can the State Department sustain its worldwide operation without new funding and 2) how many people had been furloughed.

The State Department is full of smart people. We imagine that they know exactly how long the carryover funds would last before Congress shut down the government, and they know exactly how many employees will be furloughed immediately after the lapse in appropriation.  To say that we are still crunching the numbers the day after the shutdown doesn’t make a lot of sense. Everybody knew this was coming.  And for the spokesperson not to have funding and furlough numbers four days into the shutdown is simply absurd.

We should note that the spokesperson only talks about what The Building allows him/her to talk about. Once he/she says it on the podium, it is official. So if they sound like broken records, at times, that’s because they are repeating their talking points. They do not talk beyond the chalk marks around the talking points.  Their value is in their ability to stick to their talking points without antagonizing the press even if the press runs around the room after them half a dozen times.

On Day 3 of the shutdown, it went like this:

QUESTION: Today’s Washington Post editorial was referring to the issue of the securities of the – let’s say, the embassies.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And in the same time, the policy – or at least now the policy is to keep the embassies open. How you justify this? Is it a risk to leave it open or not?

MS. HARF: No. So we’re not taking risks with our security at our embassies overseas right now. Clearly, that posture hasn’t changed. We always take security as the highest priority overseas with our embassies and our people. What I had mentioned at the beginning is it will be harder for us to continue to augment that security. So the longer we go on, the longer the shutdown goes on, we can’t get new DS agents up and trained to go overseas and continue augmenting our security, as we’ve talked about for a long time.

But our security posture remains the same, and the reason the embassies and consulates are open is because that’s really the forefront of the diplomatic work we do every day. We process visas. We get American citizens passports. We have American citizen services all over the world. We just saw a few weeks ago, when we had to shut some embassies temporarily because of a terrorist threat, all the questions and the concerns around that. Our goal is always to have them open. That’s why we’re there in a lot of places around the world.

Yes, Deb, and then I’ll go to you, Scott.

QUESTION: Shutdown?

MS. HARF: Shutdown, yeah.

QUESTION: You mentioned a few furloughs, okay. So that begs the question: How many?

MS. HARF: I know. Everyone wants specific numbers. I don’t have a specific number for you.

QUESTION: Why is it so hard to get a number?

MS. HARF: It’s just – I don’t have it. These are complicated things. We’re talking to the offices about what we can get you in terms of numbers. We just don’t have it right now.

QUESTION: You mean fewer than 10 or —

MS. HARF: It’s a small number. I just don’t have the actual number for you.

QUESTION: Fifty or less?

MS. HARF: I’ll see if I can – I will see if I can do something for you.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I’m not trying to be too cute by half here; I just don’t have a number.

Then today this happened:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04

There are three possibilities we can think of here: 1) no one in Foggy Bottom knows how to count; 2) the State Department leadership does not want the numbers released for whatever reason; 3) the spokesperson is purposely kept out of the loop, so these numbers are not on her briefing book.

Seriously folks.

We don’t want to beat up @marieharf.  We do think it undermines the credibility of the agency’s public face when she is unable to answer fairly simple questions.  These are not “complicated things” unless they have been made purposely so.  To what end, we do not know.

Can you imagine Ambassador Richard Boucher the longest-serving Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and spokesman in the U.S. Department of State’s history unable to answer these simple questions?  We can’t either.

In related news, we are starting to see tweets from official State Department accounts saying: “Due to the lapse in appropriations this Twitter feed will not be updated regularly. Please visit @StateDept for updates.” And this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04

Still waiting for an answer to the “why” question. It’s not coming? Okay.

Wait, here’s one answer:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 3.13.52 PM

What we’re seriously wondering is if the State Department’s twitteratis have been asked to “consider the perception” of “business as usual” on Twitter during a shutdown.  We’re full of serious, today — have they?

Just now we received word from a political nightingale, “We’ve also been told, even though we are working, that we are NOT to give speeches. At all.” 

Okay, that probably also means, all official receptions at posts are off including receptions for new ambassadors just getting to post – because. Optics. 

Updated at 7:07 EST with Ambassador Warlick’s response, and update on no speeches allowed. 

👀

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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State Department’s Shutdown and Furlough Updates

— By Domani Spero

 

In the October 2 Daily Press Briefing, the State Department officially identified two offices that do not have “carryover funds” and were immediately impacted by the shutdown:  the Office of the Inspector General, and the International Boundary and Water Commission.

The Office of the Inspector General (State/OIG) Inspection branch has approximately 65 employees; adding that to the number of staffers from Audit, Investigation, General Counsel, Public Affairs and EX, amounts to approximately 200 total employees according to two sources.  One branch has four employees designated as “excepted” out of 50 employees.  We are guesstimating that about 10-12% of the total IG staff has been declared “excepted.” We are unable to locate a separate Absence of Appropriation Plan for the IG office. State’s September 27 Guidance on Operations During a Lapse in Appropriations is here.

On September 27, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) published its own guide on IBWC operations during a lapse in appropriations. The IBWC traces its roots to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Treaty of 1853, which established temporary joint commissions to survey, map, and demarcate with ground landmarks the new United States (U.S.) – Mexico boundary.

Its shutdown guide indicates that  “operations department will continue to operate critical functions at the San Diego, CA and Nogales, AZ International Wastewater Treatment Plants; Falcon Dam and Falcon Power Plant; Amistad Dam and Amistad Power Plant. These operations require 24/7 operations to ensure the safety of lives and property in these regions. Water delivery and accounting operations will continue at Falcon Dam, Amistad Dam, Anzalduas Dam, Retamal Dam, and American Dam in compliance with 1944 and 1906 water treaty obligations. Oversight of flood control operations is also required of the Upper and Lower Rio Grande Flood Control systems to manage the potential of floods events.” 

The interesting thing about the IBWC guide is it also includes a roster of “excepted” employees during the furlough effective October 1, 2013 12:01 AM EDT that includes names, titles, divisions and emergency contact numbers. We don’t know how many IBWC employees had been furloughed but about 180 employees have been designated “excepted.”

As of 3:30 pm on October 2, AFSA reported that bureaus, with the exception of the OIG, have not notified any employees of their excepted/non-excepted status.  USAID similarly is relying on multi-year funds to sustain operations. Furloughs, however, are in effect at Department of Commerce HQ and domestic posts; chiefs of mission determine excepted/non-excepted status at post. Furloughs are also in effect at Department of Agriculture (FAS and APHIS) HQ and domestic posts; chiefs of mission determine excepted/non-excepted status at post. At the BBG, all overseas broadcasting efforts have been deemed essential.  About 600 employees had been furloughed out of a total staff of 1600.

Now to the official State Department update via the Daily Press Briefing with Marie Harf, the Deputy Spokesperson on October 2, 2013:

QUESTION: So do you have any more update on the shutdown’s effects on the State Department, furloughs for example, or any kind of information you give us on these programs that are funded for one year and —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — which ones might be affected?

MS. HARF: Yeah, absolutely. So no update on furloughs; we’re in the same place we’ve been on that for the last few days. I know Jen’s talked about it a lot.

In terms of programs that are impacted immediately and one-year funding, I have a couple of examples here. There – and again, as we’ve talked about, these offices do not have the available carryover funds to sustain operations and don’t have other sources of operating funds like fees, as we’ve talked about with passports and visas. Some of these offices include the Office of the Inspector General, the International Boundary and Water Commission. Certain Department of State accounts with only single-year direct appropriations also include contributions to international organizations – not all of them but some of them. There’s also an impact on our foreign military funding. I know we’ve talked a lot about FMF in here. In the absence of a continuing resolution, we have no FY14 Foreign Military Financing, International Military Education [and Training], or Peacekeeping Operations funds to obligate.

So for example – I’ll just give you one example – FY 2014 security assistance funding for Israel will be delayed until a continuing resolution or until full-year appropriation is passed. The State Department’s ability to provide military assistance to Israel and other allies in the timeframe that is expected and customary could be hindered depending on the length of the shutdown. So while there are no furloughs, it’s not just business as usual, and there are programs, certainly, that are affected and which all could be up and running again if Congress could get some business done. 
[…]
QUESTION: I just wanted to see if you could give us a little bit more detail. A couple of days ago, Jen was saying the number crunchers were looking at what funds are available, what’s in, what’s out. Can you just give us an idea, do they kind of know in advance what’s out there, because obviously, you deal with budgets all the time, or is it they are sitting up on a floor up there looking at things as we’re speaking and saying, “No, we can’t afford that; we can’t afford this”? What – behind the scenes, what do they do?

MS. HARF: Right. Well, obviously, we have a picture of what our resources look like, right? So Jen has talked about this a lot in terms of the fact that we haven’t had to furlough yet, which is – for most of our employees, which is a good thing. But I think the longer this goes on, every day that the government is shut down, we have to take a look at the numbers and we have to take a hard look at competing priorities and our programs around the world. And every day that this goes on longer, there will be things we can’t do. There will be ways that we cannot go overseas and promote our interests.
[…]
QUESTION: Regarding these furloughs and people who are – federal employees that they are going to be affected by – which the number – I mean, it’s like, in the last two or three days, they are saying about 800,000 people.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you have an – I mean, I know it’s a big number and it’s an unspecified number. Do you have, somehow, a round figure of how many people would be affected with the State Department or its —

MS. HARF: I don’t, and I can look into that and see if there’s more specific numbers I can get to you. As you all know, we’ve talked about for the last few days that we have a specific funding mechanism that has allowed us to continue without the massive furloughs that we’ve seen elsewhere, but I can look into if there are specific numbers going forward. Hopefully, we won’t get to that point.
[…]
QUESTION: In terms of the Office of Inspector General and the Boundary and Water, and all that —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — how were they affected?

MS. HARF: How were they – well, you asked about offices that were impacted immediately under one-year funding.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: So offices that operate with this one-year funding that does not have available carryover funds, they’ve been notified that they have to cease operations.

QUESTION: So that doesn’t affect – that doesn’t mean there’s furloughs?

MS. HARF: I can check on that, on furloughs for you. In terms of these very small number of employees, there may, in fact, be. I think we’ve said for the last few days that we – most of our employees are not affected by furloughs at this point. There may be some in these offices. So I’ll check on that.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: And I can check if there are numbers available. I just don’t know.

Mm-hmm.

(ô_ô)

State Dept Declares Inspector General Office “Non-Essential”, Furloughs All Staffers Except a Handful (Corrected)

— By Domani Spero

 

The State Department Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy sent a letter to employees on September 30 reiterating, that “Department offices, bureaus, and State elements at our posts overseas will continue to function for a limited period of time.

In the September 30 Daily Press Briefing (DPB), State Department was going to stay open despite the shutdown.  (See Shutdown News:  State Department Stays Open and Operational. For Now.)

The MGT memo and the October 1 DPB now indicates that “a small number of offices” will be impacted initially by the shutdown.

When pressed for the affected offices, Ms. Psaki promised to get “a specific list.” But she added that “the way that it’s categorized, the impacted offices are those that operate with one-year funds that do not have available carryover funds to sustain operations. So they don’t have funds from the previous fiscal year and they are on one-year funding mechanisms.”

QUESTION: I’m just concerned, when you said they’ll be – continue to function for a time, I know you wouldn’t give weeks or days. But if I’m overseas and I need to see somebody at the embassy, I better get myself there right away?
[…]
QUESTION: What does “for a time” mean? I mean, “for a time” could be anything, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I separated —

QUESTION: I mean, you said —

MS. PSAKI: Let me just finish. I separated out that as – the consular services as – I think as I said, since consular operations are fee-funded, there is significantly less chance at any point those individuals will be furloughed. And passport and consular services are fee-funded, which means they pay for themselves. So obviously, those operations will continue. Now, we can’t predict how long this will continue, so I’m just conveying that we’re taking it day by day.

We were looking for some clarity like this:

“SIGAR’s FY 2013 Appropriations provided $48.04M (post sequestration)5 in funds as multi-year funds. At present, SIGAR is projecting a carryover of$7.9M in unobligated funding to FY 2014, which will remain available through September 30, 2014. SIGAR will use this funding to delay the large disruption a lapse in funding would cause to SIGAR’s employees and operations. SIGAR projects the available funding will sustain current operations through December I, 2013 (61 days).”

We hope such clarity is forthcoming from the podium but we’re not holding our breath.  So folks will be left guessing how long the carryover funds will last for the rest of the agency.

In any case, Ms. Psaki was also asked about furloughed employees:

QUESTION: Were there any employees that, let’s say, came today and had to leave after four hours, like was suggested by some?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I referred to just a minimal number impacted by one-year funded programs. But the vast majority of employees reported to work today, are here today. Given that we are part of – we are a national security agency and we represent American interests around the world, that’s where our staffing levels are at this point.

QUESTION: So it’s safe to assume that some people did come to work, spent two or three hours, and then were asked to go home?

MS. PSAKI: I did not imply that. I think there’s a small, minimal number that are impacted by the one-year programs. That’s – beyond that, I don’t have specific numbers.

We just don’t understand this.  How hard is it to admit that yes, some employees had been furloughed?  Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General (State/OIG) has approximately 50 200 employees.  In one of its six offices (Inspection, Audit, Investigation, General Counsel, Public Affairs and EX) four out of approximately 50 employees were declared “excepted.”  The rest were given letters notifying them that they had been furloughed. So on Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown, the State/OIG employees worked no more than four hours to “shutdown” then went home for an undetermined period of time.  We understand that all inspections (save one already in the field) have been suspended.

That’s right.  The office entrusted with ensuring that waste, fraud, and abuse does not occur within the Department was deemed “non-essential” and sent home without pay.  (Also see Senate Confirms Steve Linick; State Dept Finally Gets an Inspector General After 2,066 Days).

Correction:  State/OIG’s Inspection branch has approximately 65 employees; adding the number of staffers from Audit, Investigation and other units we are told totals approximately 200 employees. One branch has four employees designated as “excepted” out of 50 employees.  We are guesstimating that about 10-12% of the total IG staff has been declared “excepted.” We will update the numbers if we get further clarification, officially or unofficially.  The blogpost title has been corrected.  

By contrast, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), also in the national security cone, has all its staff in Washington, DC and Afghanistan working normal.  That’s a staff of about 190 including 50 deployed to the war zone considered “”emergency essential” (EE) personnel.”

In any case, everything else is reportedly open and operational in the State Department including the Foreign Service Institute. It looks like State/OIG was the only exception, so the spokesperson’s “specific list” should be very short. Most other offices are apparently on two-year funding which we are told should last (unconfirmed officially) “until next week.”

AFSA’s update to members cited an unnamed Department management official conveying to HR employees that “there appeared to be enough funds to continue operations for approximately one pay period.”  Furthermore, the Department will reportedly try to provide ample notice (e.g. approximately 5 business days) to non-excepted employees before any emergency furlough. Also, bureaus (with exception of OIG) have not scrubbed their excepted/non-excepted lists nor notified any employees of their individual status.

(*O*)

Shutdown News: State Department Stays Open and Operational. For Now.

— By Domani Spero

Shortly before midnight, OPM released a statement ordering federal agencies to execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations. During the DPB the day before the shutdown, the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that State/USAID operation can be “sustained” for a limited duration in the event of a shutdown:

[R]egardless of the challenges a shutdown would create, we will continue to operate to advance national interests and to protect health and safety of American citizens and those living abroad. 

If appropriations are not continued, so if the government shuts down, initially Department of State and USAID activities can be sustained on a limited basis for a short period of time. I don’t have the specific number of days because it’s dependent on our programs and spending, so I can’t give you the prediction of the number of days.

Ms. Psaki asked specifically about “any immediate kind of furloughs” said: “I will have to double-check and make sure that the answer is zero. But I can convey definitively that the vast, vast majority of staff will not be…”

So it looks like, at least, for now, the State Department will remain open and operational and no employees will be put on furloughs. (If you are with State/USAID and have received a furlough letter, give us a shout here).

How is this possible?

If there is no continuing resolution or new FY 2014 appropriations bill by October 1, 2013, certain Department of State and USAID operations can continue on a limited basis for a short period of time.  At least, that’s what will happen initially.  According to State, its FY 2013 appropriations were not enacted by Congress until late March causing uncertainty about the agency’s funding levels. The result was a reduction of agency spending for the first part of FY 2013.  So certain multi-year State Department and USAID accounts have residual funds that will be available after September 30, 2013.  These funds will allow the Department and USAID to continue to meet most payroll obligations for a short period of time.

How short a period of time, the spokesperson is unable to say.

In the 1995 shutdown, non-essential government workers were put on furlough and the government suspended non-essential services from November 14 through November 19, 1995 and from December 16, 1995 to January 6, 1996, for a total of 28 days. During that shutdown, 20,000-30,000 visa applications went unprocessed each day, as did 200,000 U.S. passport applications for the period.  There were no numbers but this reportedly deeply impacted the tourism and travel sectors of the economy.”

That’s not happening this time around.

The State Department spokesman said yesterday that “activities carry out by our – by the Bureau of Consular Affairs will continue domestically and abroad. So that means they will continue visa issuance as well as our passport operations.”

There’s another reason why State may be able to sustain its operation even in a shutdown, at least for a limited time. Its public services like visa and passport issuances are now fee-based.  When you apply for a passport or a visa, or obtain other consular services overseas, you pay a fee and that helps fund the programs. Processing fee for regular tourist and student visa is currently $160.00. Passport books and cards range in fee from $30 – $165.

In FY 2012, the State Department processed 10.3 million non-immigrant visa applications and issued 8.9 million visas, including 497,044 student and 313,424 exchange visitor visas.  These international students reportedly contributed over $22.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2011. In FY 2012, the State Department also issued 13.1 million passports and passport cards.

The State Department’s passport and visa operations generated approximately $3.14 billion in consular fee revenue in FY2012.  It retained 78% or $2.45 billion of the total revenue.  The retained fees were shared among its regional and functional bureaus. See breakdown below.

Screen Shot 2013-08-12

Prior to 1994, the Department did not retain any of the consular fees collected. Subsequently, Congress authorized the Department to retain Machine Readable Visa (MRV) fees to help fund consular operations related to border security (I think the roll out of machine readable visas was not completed until the summer of 1996).

The Department is also authorized to collect and retain other fees to fund consular-related activities. It now retains a portion of the consular fees that it collects and remits the remaining portion to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.  In FY 2010, the Department collected approximately $2.62 billion in fee revenue and was allowed to retain about 70 percent of the fees (or approximately $1.8 billion).

Various embassies and consulates have been tweeting that they are open for business and that applicants should keep their interview appointments.

The State Department’s guidance on operations during a lapse in appropriation is available here.

(O_O)