Lawmakers to State: Pick up the phone!

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Story highlights

  • There's bipartisan frustration with the State Department's lack of communication with Congress
  • Unfilled staff positions may be a factor, lawmakers say

Washington (CNN)As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed House and Senate lawmakers about new limits on refugee admissions, the Trump administration publicly announced the news.

"This is upside down," a visibly exasperated Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN as he left the last-minute briefing for each chamber's judiciary committee. The Illinois Democrat was referring to a federal law that requires the administration to confer with Congress at least two weeks before that kind of announcement. "We were supposed to be consulted," he said.
    Lawmakers in both parties are frustrated with Tillerson's State Department, charging that it isn't consulting them as it's required to do or responding to requests for information that allow Congress to exercise oversight of the administrative branch.
    They complain about the difficulty they have getting answers to queries, about the lack of briefings and the dearth of substantive information on issues that range from policy changes, such as the refugee announcement, to the use of US weapons overseas, to the department's expenditures of taxpayer dollars.
    "Even in the majority side, we're beginning to have a couple of issues where we're just not getting a response," said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We even are probably going to have to start applying kinds of pressures that we don't typically like to apply."
    A State Department spokesman said the agency "values congressional oversight and takes seriously its obligation to brief Congress on its programs and initiatives. We welcome Congressional inquiries into our operations and diligently endeavor to respond to questions and formal correspondence in a timely manner."
    Some lawmakers, looking for reasons to explain the dynamic, concede that the Trump administration is relatively new. Others say response times might be affected because the State Department is understaffed and undergoing a reconstruction. And they allow that at a time of intensified international crises, including North Korea's nuclear testing, the agency might be getting even more congressional requests than usual.
    Senators and representatives on Congress' foreign affairs committees are familiar with the frustration, but it was new to members of the House and Senate judiciary committees, who met Wednesday with Tillerson in a room off the Capitol Building's sumptuous, statuary lined Hall of Columns.
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    Federal law requires the administration to undertake "appropriate consultation" with Congress when setting refugee admissions quotas, and to do it before the end of the fiscal year. Moreover, the law stipulates that, "to the extent possible," that process should occur "at least two weeks in advance of discussions in person by designated representatives of the President with such members."
    Tillerson's briefing occurred just three days before the end of the fiscal year. Not only that, news reports about the decision to cap admissions at 45,000 were surfacing before the secretary's meeting with the lawmakers was even on the calendar.
    "We are incredibly frustrated," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said in a joint statement.
    "It is simply unacceptable to read in the press that the administration had reached its decision on the refugee cap before the mandated meeting with Congress had even been scheduled," they said. 

    Bipartisan requests

    "Since August, our offices have made bipartisan requests to the State Department on this meeting," they said. "Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject. An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient."
    In a call with reporters Wednesday, a senior administration official acknowledged the discrepancy, but noted "we have done this in less than two weeks in the past."
    Durbin, Corker and other lawmakers allow that upheaval at State may be affecting performance. The Trump administration is calling for the agency's budget to be cut by as much as a third, and Tillerson is restructuring. Dozens of senior positions remain unfilled and Tillerson, only seven months into the job, has no prior government experience.
    "I'm going to give a little bit of flexibility to them -- it's a new administration," Durbin said. "But this is not the way it's supposed to work."
    Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to the natural tensions within the American system. "The second branch of government isn't very tolerant of the first branch of government, and they don't like us nosing around in their business, even though it's our constitutional duty for oversight," he told CNN.
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    Corker agrees. "Let me say this, when [President Barack] Obama was in charge, the Democrats who were in the majority had the same issues," he said.
    As committee chairman, he also sees some slow-walking going on. State has "been really good, but some of the response times are beginning to slow," Corker said. "Especially on things we really want done, that they really don't want done." He wouldn't offer details.
    But he also points to the lack of manpower, with so many senior positions unfilled. "They're so understaffed," he said. "It's a huge factor. So many things have to actually get to Tillerson for a decision to be made that could have been made two levels down."
    Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, echoed that observation during a recent committee hearing: "As ranking member, I have had to exercise my authority to call the secretary of state to get some of this information when I should be getting it from the people who are directly involved in making these policies," he said.
    Addressing a State Department official, Cardin added, "you need to do a much more effective job in communications."

    "A fiasco"

    After listening to that official talk about the department's commitment to answering lawmakers' questions, Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, offered his two cents, describing a briefing about projects in the West Bank so devoid of information that it was, he said, "a fiasco."
    "I'll just say, my experience has been extremely frustrating with the Department of State," he said. "And when you say they are committed, those are, at this point, empty words."
    Risch suggested that some of these complaints might amount to Democrat sour grapes. "I can tell you, when you're in the minority, your letters go to the bottom of the pile as opposed to the top of the pile," he said. "Those of us on the majority side now had the same difficulty when the other side had the State Department."
    Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, pushed back, telling CNN that "a lot of these requests have been bipartisan, and some of our classified hearings, you've had senators on both sides of the aisle expressing frustration."
    Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, have written to Tillerson to ask about the sale of attack aircraft to Nigeria's military. The two men, junior members on the Foreign Relations Committee, have raised concerns that Nigeria's air force and the country's security forces stand accused, in separate incidents, of killing hundreds of refugees and mostly unarmed detainees, including children. They've also flagged allegations of corruption, abuse and misconduct throughout the Nigerian military.

    "I can't even get a briefing"

    "I can't even get a briefing on this issue," Booker said during a recent committee hearing about foreign military assistance. "I'm just looking for someone to give me actual information. Because according to the Constitution, the administration can't continue to engage in these kind of activities without our authorization."
    One concern is that Washington can be seen as complicit if foreign governments use US-made weaponry to repress or kill their people. Booker worried aloud about the possible US connections to violence in Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria, and the difficulty in getting answers from State.
    "This is absolutely unacceptable to me that we allow representative after representative to come before this committee and make promises that we're going to get information, or we're going to have hearings, and we get nothing in return," Booker thundered.
    Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican on the committee, used the same hearing to ask a State Department official why it took almost three months for the agency to tell him it couldn't answer a question about whether Saudi Arabia, which is conducting a war in Yemen, is violating international laws about denying lifesaving food and medicine.
    The official wasn't able to provide an answer.