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April 2013
the foreign Service journal
Reach Out to
Capitol Hill
By Dan Geisler
mong the many actions that AFSA undertakes in its role
as a federal labor union, one that I fnd to be of particular
importance, and recommend it continue to emphasize, is
its advocacy work on personnel and professional issues on Capitol
During my term as AFSA president (1997-1999), State Depart-
ment staf did not track legislation afecting federal workers. Tat
was considered to be the job of the Ofce of Personnel Manage-
ment. Only AFSAmonitored and infuenced legislation on such
matters as the retirement system and health benefts.
Was that important? Absolutely! Te Foreign Service is gov-
erned by diferent statutes than the Civil Service, and if new legisla-
tion does not incorporate changes into our governing statutes, we
lose benefts.
AFSAmet regularly with professional staf fromboth sides of
the aisles of both chambers, often at their request, to voice our con-
cerns about the department’s management, personnel planning
and budgeting. We were invited to testify before House and Senate
committees considering federal worker legislation, and furnished
information Foggy Bottom couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide.
At one point, the chief of staf of Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C.,
who was no friend of the Foreign Service, solicited AFSA’s input on
a bill the senator planned to introduce to “strengthen” the Foreign
Service promotion system—by instituting a process of mandatory
selection out of a certain percentage of ofcers and specialists
every year. Sharon Papp, our general counsel, pointed out numer-
ous, serious faws in the draft, including provisions that conficted
with existing federal civil rights laws.
imprudently had the residence measured for curtains before her
candidacy was voted on.
Money Talks
Why is it so hard to abandon a practice that no one really
likes? In an excellent Speaking Out column in the November
Foreign Service Journal
(“Psst! Hey, Buddy, Wanna Buy
an Ambassadorship?”), retired Ambassador Dennis Jett points
to the geometric growth of presidential campaign costs, which
has driven out all thought of anyone other than donors for the
“plum” chief of mission posts (and some others). As former
President Jimmy Carter lamented recently, it wasn’t the 2010
Citizens United
decision by the Supreme Court that frst opened
the foodgates to astronomical sums of campaign money, but
rather the candidates’ own decisions (including Obama’s) not to
use the public fnancing available to them, because it came with
a ceiling on campaign spending. Now, if
Te New York Times
and other sources are to be believed, the White House is sorting
through the list of 2012 donor bundlers to carry out the unenvi-
able task of ftting more round pegs into square holes overseas.
Maybe we should be happy that new chiefs of mission with
deep pockets are going to the posts with the heaviest representa-
tional expenses in their host countries. Or maybe we can console
ourselves with the thought that who heads our embassies may
be less important in a world of instant communications.
Ten again, nothing casts doubt on the importance of an
embassy like sending a chief of mission whose chief qualifcation is
his or her checkbook. Such appointments tend to suggest that the
host country does not really matter in the eyes of the U.S. admin-
istration. After all, dangerous key posts in crisis zones are still
reserved for career ofcers.
Te history of donor appointments over the past 50 years is
replete with embarrassments; Amb. Jett’s article points out two
among President Obama’s frst-term appointees. As long as the
practice continues, there are sure to be more.
Regrettably, until the embarrassments prove so as to reach a
tipping point, AFSA’s leadershipmay be destined to go on crying
in the wilderness of American politics. Even so, AFSA should
continue to fght the good fght for the appointment of truly quali-
fed individuals to key positions, both overseas and inWashington
After all, Congress itself set that standard in the Foreign Service
Act of 1980.
Ted Wilkinson was AFSA president from 1989 to 1991, and chaired
the FSJ Editorial Board from 2005 to 2011.
“The 40-year mark is a golden
opportunity to expand AFSA’s profle
on the Hill by working to organize
formal House and Senate caucuses
of legislators who are interested in
supporting American diplomats.”
—Dan Geisler (AFSA President, 1997-1999)