(Bloomberg) — State Department special envoys are about to get less special.
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President Joe Biden’s administration is rushing to fill posts for special envoys and representatives ahead of a Jan. 3 deadline after which most such candidates will be required to get Senate confirmation. That rule, passed quietly in 2021, closes a loophole that let successive administrations circumvent the lengthy wait time that has plagued ambassadorial nominees.
The loophole had resulted in a proliferation of the envoy jobs, and Congress had grown increasingly frustrated that the administration was relying on special envoys to do work that lawmakers argued should fall under their oversight.
“The passage of this provision can be interpreted in a positive light, in that it seeks consensus on the importance of national priorities,” said Valerie Smith-Boyd, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service. “But given the delays in the confirmation process that we’re seeing increasing with each administration, it runs the risk of delaying the elevation of important issues.”
Eager to beat the deadline, the Biden administration has announced several new envoys in recent weeks, including former Representative Abby Finkenauer for global youth issues, former Representative Joseph Kennedy III as an economic envoy to Northern Ireland,and Johnnie Carson, a veteran diplomat, to implement the goals of the US-Africa Leaders Summit.
They all can get to work immediately, without appearing before a Senate committee and facing a confirmation vote by the full chamber. That’s what’s about to change for future appointees.
Under the provision in a State Department authorization bill, as of Jan. 3 “an individual may not be designated as a Special Envoy, Special Representative, Special Coordinator, Special Negotiator, Envoy, Representative, Coordinator, Special Advisor, or other position performing a similar function, regardless of title, at the Department exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States without the advice and consent of the Senate.”
According to the American Foreign Service Association, the State Department now has 53 special envoys including ones for the Arctic, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and other regions or subject matters that would seem to overlap with the jobs of ambassadors or other senior State Department officials.
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal considerations, downplayed the significance of the new requirement, saying the administration hasn’t used special envoys and representatives as a workaround to the Senate confirmation process.
Instead, the person said, Biden’s envoys have tackled core national security priorities such as the Iranian nuclear program, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the conflict in Ethiopia. The official said the administration now has a two-year track record of success using the positions, and would continue pushing the Senate to confirm all its nominees swiftly and on a bipartisan basis.
But the provision will clearly create problems and may prevent some current envoys from stepping down as planned, according to another person familiar with the matter. Of particular concern is the US envoy for the Iran nuclear talks, Rob Malley, who has faced sharp blowback from Republicans and some Democrats and whose successor would face a tough confirmation battle regardless of who it is.
Another lightning rod is John Kerry, the special envoy for climate issues. Some Republicans argue that Kerry, a former secretary of state, is hijacking US policy for the sake of the Biden administration’s climate agenda.
The proliferation of special envoy jobs has come in for criticism before. In 2015, the American Academy of Diplomacy issued a report titled “American Diplomacy at Risk” that said special envoys often bring in their own staff and operate in a “closed loop with other non-career staff.”
Special envoys “pursue their issues without integrating the larger national interests that must inform responsible foreign policy decisions and implementation,” the report found. “Many are supposed to report directly to the Secretary, an obvious impossibility.”
Successive administrations have also acknowledged the proliferation of the jobs. In 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proposed eliminating several special envoy jobs, but little came of it.
But Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of state for management, said “the secretary or the president needs the flexibility to appoint special envoys. Cases arise where an issue has to be addressed and it requires a commitment of time and travel” that other senior officials can’t manage.
He said it boiled down to “a fight between the two branches of government about how long you can have these individuals.” It could have been resolved by imposing a six-month limit before requiring Senate confirmation, he said.
Individuals tapped for special envoy posts in the new year will join a long line of nominees awaiting confirmation, including career foreign service officers selected to serve as ambassadors abroad. Administration officials have complained repeatedly about the backlog, saying the US is unique in its tendency to undermine foreign policy for political ends.
Recent days have offered a glimmer of hope for the State Department, with the Senate confirming 22 ambassadorial nominees, including US envoys to Russia, Romania, the Organization of American States, Brazil, Bulgaria, Estonia and Latvia, from Dec. 13 to 22. Numerous ambassadorial posts remain vacant, however, as Congress prepares to begin a new session.
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