By Rep. Scott Perry
We think of the Secretary of State as visiting foreign capitals and negotiating treaties. But there is another side of what is now John Kerry's job: manager. Make that complex bureaucratic manager. The State Department has more than 24,000 employees, most of them overseas, in 271 U.S. posts. Last week, Secretary Kerry testified to the Foreign Affairs Committee about his plans to spend the $52 billion foreign affairs budget the President has requested.
Providing security for State Department employees has to be the top priority. Earlier this month, a young Foreign Service officer was killed in Afghanistan. The terrorist attack in Benghazi last 9/11 took the life of our ambassador, and other brave Americans. Unfortunately, many parts of the world are increasingly hostile, making it more dangerous for the brave men and women serving our country overseas.
While we may need to spend more on embassy security, the system needs to be fixed. It was poor management decisions that led to the State Department's facility in Benghazi being left so vulnerable. A State Department official testified to Congress that funding constraints never impacted Benghazi decisions. Instead, it was what a review board found to be "systemic failures" in State Department management. In short, bad decisions. State Department personnel were pleading for more security. They were turned down.
In the wake of the Benghazi attack, I joined with Democrat Congresswoman Grace Meng to introduce legislation that would reform U.S. State Department bureaucracy to better protect the lives of American diplomats serving overseas. The SAFE Embassies Act (H.R. 925) aims to increase accountability of State Department employees by giving the Secretary of State more power to discipline personnel who put diplomats in danger.
Secretary Kerry must take a strong interest in reforming his Department to prevent another Benghazi debacle. That will take his time and energy. To the extent more resources are needed, there is a desperate need for prioritizing. There are plenty of programs that can be sacrificed for better embassy security or other important programs.
Take for example, the $4 million "Tomorrow's Leaders Scholarship" program, which provides full-tuition plus expenses for students across the Middle East to study at U.S.-accredited colleges in the region. Now the Administration wants to spend an additional $12 million on scholarships for Tunisians attending American colleges; over $18 million for Pakistan exchange programs; $1.2 million in grants for graduate-level seminars for foreign scholars and educators; and $100,000 to subsidize airfare for German students traveling to the United States to study English. How can such inefficient, expensive scholarship programs for foreign students be justified when an increasing number of American students can no longer afford college? The answer is simple -- they can't.
It doesn't stop there. The Obama Administration has proposed providing $100,000 in grants to "train southeast Asian country participants on how to make presentations and moderate discussions"; $250,000 to fund energy security projects in southeast Asia, including a symposium on "lessons learned from the "Cash for Clunkers' program"; and $110,000 for two week-long trainings in Kathmandu for international scientists "to discuss the most recent research on snow, glaciers, glacier hydrology, as well as to identify gaps in this data." And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.
U.S. foreign assistance can be a useful tool to help advance U.S. interests abroad. Effective rule of law and economic growth programs have helped advance democratic principles and develop reliable trade partners for U.S. exporters. Health programs have saved many lives and reduced the transnational risk of pandemics, such as polio and HIV/AIDS. Our assistance to Israel and other key partners has directly benefitted our national security. But with our chronic budget deficits and mounting national debt, there is no room for wasteful programs. And we desperately need to prioritize.
As a member of the committee responsible for overseeing the spending and operations of the State Department, I am committed to ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars are used effectively and efficiently. Protecting our diplomats is the most important task for Secretary Kerry. After that, we can talk about supporting other programs. But by continuing to fund wasteful and ineffective programs, the Administration is undermining support for the programs that do, in fact, work. If the President is not willing to enforce fiscal discipline in the foreign affairs budget, or any other department's budget, Congress must be prepared to do it for him.