Since the government is shut down and thus there is no news to report except that the government is still shut down, we’ll reach into the memory hole for something to talk about today. Ah, here’s one…

Before the shutdown the House Appropriations Committee approved an $8 billion cut for 2014 in the roughly $50 billion (16% cut) current international affairs (State and USAID) budget. The same day, the House authorized only a $5 billion reduction in the defense budget of over $600 billion (less than 1% cut).

The Department of State did not sit idly by.

State’s employee association (AFSA for any of you State people still paying dues) commissioned a guy who had already written a happy-talk book about State (“America’s Other Army,” give us a break) to interview all of 28 Congressional staffers about their attitudes toward Mother State. The author concluded: “an overwhelming majority (82%) described their experience with the Foreign Service and Department of State as ‘mostly positive.’ Respondents view Foreign Service members as dedicated, intelligent and patriotic public servants who make significant sacrifices…” Awesome. Sounds like an ad on Match.com

The author of the survey then went on ForeignPolicy.com to write a journalist-like article about his own work. Maybe Foreign Policy will next allow authors to review their own books? Sign me up, and hey, good luck with that paywall at Foreign Policy.

About that Survey

That anyone at State paid for a survey that reached only 28 staffers out of the thousands on the Hill is in itself hilarious. There are approximately 11,692 personal staff, 2,492 committee staff, 274 leadership staff, 5,034 institutional staff, and 3,500 GAO employees, 747 CRS employees, and 232 CBO employees on the Hill. So basing anything on only 28 interviews is enough to make one wonder what FP.com’s journalistic standards are. Very sad.

Oh yes– the 28 staffer surveyed were selected by the author himself, not randomly. About the only bone he throws is that they were half Democrat and half Republican, which itself makes no sense given the variation even within parties.

Here’s a taste if you don’t have the stomach to read the whole thing: One of the survey’s findings is supposedly that Congressional staffers feel that “Content about diplomacy and the Foreign Service should be included in the middle school and high school curriculum.” Sure, sure, squeeze that in between gym and drivers ed.

Congress Knows

The author’s broader argument, that basically Congress does not know what State does and thus undervalues the organization, is funnier than his grasp of statistical methods.

Congress knows; they just think State does not do much of importance. Members and their staff travel regularly abroad, where they see State Department diplomats act as their tour guides and bag carriers. As a young diplomat in London, I was assigned to accompany so many Congressional spouses on shopping trips masquerading as official business that my colleagues called me “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store.” Meanwhile, a well-briefed Defense Congressional liaison sits on the gratis military jet provided for every overseas Congressional visit, as a respected peer, with hours in the air to score talking points. State handles the luggage on the ground as the Defense Liaison boards the limo to the hotel. Congress knows.

When Congressional Committees ask for quick answers from State, they get delays followed by verbatim content-free responses. Subpoenas had to be issued to get State people up to the Hill on Benghazi, and even then-Secretary of State herself had a cascading series of “reasons” not to testify until her last days in office.

So Congress knows.

On the Hill

I worked (in 2006) as one of only two State Department Congressional liaisons to assist all members of both the House and Senate. State was the last Cabinet-level agency to open a liaison office on the Hill, and only then in 2001 (by contrast, the military has had people on the Hill since the early part of the 20th century.) We were the only Cabinet-level liaison office without a dedicated web site. I was not even issued a cell phone and was not given a Blackberry to respond to emails outside the office; staffers just left old-school voice messages on a circa-1990s desktop answering machine for me to pick up Monday morning if I was in the office. Half the staffers, raised on smartphones, didn’t leave a callback number, unaware that my Back to the Future answering machine did not even have Caller ID.

We never gave briefings. State did not pay into a collective fund and so we could not reserve rooms ourselves for meetings. Instead, one of my official duties was to cajole interns on the Foreign Relations Committee to do it on our behalf. We were prohibited from doing any substantial interaction. Instead, 80 percent of the inquiries into my office were demands for visa and passport favors. Most of the other 20 percent were minor administrative things related to Congressional travel. In my year only one actual Member appeared in our office, to say a polite thank you for a U.S. visa facilitated for a well-to-do foreign friend. Congress knew just what we did.

Full disclosure: I was removed from the liaison job after I told staffers the truth about the 2006 Passport Crisis instead of passing on State’s wholly-false talking points. Failing to lie to Congress got me in trouble.

Hagiography

One issue the State Department just can’t get past is the need for realistic self-criticism. They just can’t do it. State instead runs a large “public diplomacy” operation on taxpayer money in large part to promote itself, and spends tremendous energy on telling itself what a fine job it is doing.

As for reality, Congress expresses itself (yeah I know, for better or worse) in what it funds and what it does not. So the author of all this tripe may wish to take a pause from his defacto job as State Department stenographer and admit: Congress votes against State because indeed Congress knows exactly what they get for their money: America’s Concierge Abroad.

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Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well, and writes about current events at his blog. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percentwill be available April 2014 from Luminis Books.