No intent to merge USAID into State, says deputy secretary of state

John J. Sullivan, United States deputy secretary of state. Photo by: Juan Manuel Herrera / Organization of American States

The United States Department of State does not currently intend to merge the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Monday.

In a hearing that discussed State Department reorganization efforts and the State Department authorization bill, a number of senators expressed concern at having heard that USAID and State could be merged. The issue of a merger has been floated in the past, and the administration’s budget recommended eliminating much of USAID’s funding, which many development experts saw as a signal that the White House may support folding the agency into State.

“There is no intention to fold [US]AID into state,” Sullivan said. “That has been proposed by people outside the department.”

Sullivan said such a proposal “could be considered” by a working group on foreign assistance that is currently considering options as part of the administration’s reorganization at State. “But if it were, it would be with the full input of all of these [US]AID leaders involved,” he told senators. “But I can commit to you that there is not an intention of this department to absorb USAID.”

A number of senators, including Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, and Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, pushed Sullivan on the question of merging USAID into the State Department and the challenges of trying to merge two agencies with fundamentally different missions, cultures and timelines.

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Menendez called a merging of the agencies “alarming,” and said: “You’ve explained these measures as saving money, and I ask, at what cost?”

Young offered the example of the challenges around merging the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department in 1999 and urged the administration to think through the implications. In a back and forth with Sullivan, he sought to ensure that the committee will be apprised of any reorganization plans and that there would be an ongoing consultation process including senior State Department staff meeting with members of a task force Young co-chairs on foreign aid reform.

Sullivan said that he is familiar with and respectful of the differences in culture, mission and toolsets between USAID and State, and that there was a “robust” discussion in the steering committee about the issue of merging the agencies, in which USAID participated and shared its input.

Oversight and reorganization

One recurring theme of this hearing, and of others involving State Department officials in recent weeks or months, has been repeated requests for openness and ongoing consultation between the State Department and the committee. On Monday, a number of senators urged the State Department to engage the committee on a regular basis, but particularly before any new policies related to the reorganization take place.

That foreign assistance working group is one of five that bring together State Department and USAID employees to discuss reorganization plans. Following staff surveys, and what the department called a “listening” tour, State Department leaders formed a steering committee to provide oversight and five working groups to address the main themes that came from the first phase of discussions: Foreign assistance, overseas alignment and approach, human capital planning, IT platforms, and management support. The working groups are now undertaking phase two.

“Can you assure me that you won’t begin implementation of this proposed plan until each member of the committee has been fully briefed on it?” Young asked. Sullivan responded with “absolutely.”

Some senators made clear that they are concerned about the direction of the State Department’s policy making, and indicated an interest in exercising their congressional role as an authorizer.

“It’s my personal belief that Congress as a whole is a co-equal branch of government with the executive and must therefore dutifully exercise its role not only as overseer but as authorizer,” Menendez said. “In my view true oversight is in essence to create the structure at the State Department, to authorize it. That is Congress’ job.”

Special envoys

The issue of special envoys also came up repeatedly, with many senators supporting a reduction in the nearly 70 current positions. The roles are not senate confirmed but often wield policy-making power and have sizeable teams and considerable spending.

Several senators, however, used the opportunity to ask for specific special envoys to be maintained in the reorganization process and appointed swiftly. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, urged the administration to keep the post of ambassador for global women’s issues.

Sullivan said the department is looking at all of the special envoys, but will consult with the committee on positions of interest. He added that some of the envoy positions were created to address issues that have diminished over time, while others tackle enduring issues, such as women and fighting antisemitism. He also said specifically that whether or not a women’s ambassador position exists, the issue of women’s empowerment will continue to be a priority for the administration.

As it considers special envoys, the State Department will seek to link envoys to a specific bureau and perhaps change the reporting structure so they no longer report to the secretary of state and are not isolated from the rest of the agency, Sullivan said.

There are 11 special envoys mandated by Congress and another seven that Congress has recommended. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, the ranking member of the committee, expressed concern that those positions supported by the Senate may not be supported in the reauthorization process. He asked Sullivan to work closely with the committee to help create a better policy for approving special envoys.

There was some tension and discussion among senators on the committee about the state department reauthorization bill that has been drafted. Shaheen said that she is concerned about passing a reauthorization when it is unclear what the recommendations for reorganization from that State Department might be, and wanted to reserve the ability to pass an authorization that made Congress’ position clear in response to that plan, which is expected September 15.

Committee chair Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, argued that it is important to pass the bill in the next 60 days as part of the longer term effort of creating a legislative process for the committee, akin to the annual reauthorizations that the armed services committee passes.

Cardin also sought assurances that the State Department will abide by and implement Congress’ budget and policy legislation.

Sullivan said that State will follow the instructions of Congress and urged the committee to “hold us accountable,” he said.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.