State Department to Offer Buyouts in Effort to Cut Staff

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson will offer $25,000 to diplomats and staff who quit or retire early in cutbacks in diplomacy opposed by Congress.

WASHINGTON — The State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed on Friday.

The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.

To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide.

Still, State Department accountants have told Mr. Tillerson that only about 1,341 people are expected to retire or quit by the end of September 2018, the date by which Mr. Tillerson has promised to complete the first round of cuts.

Indeed, rumors of a buyout have reduced the number of departures expected this year. So $25,000 will be given to the first 641 employees who agree to leave by April, a representative from the State Department confirmed on Friday.

For top diplomats, a $25,000 buyout — which taxes would probably reduce to about $16,000 — is not enough to change career plans, so many have already left. The number of those carrying the department’s top two ranks — equivalent to four- and three-star generals — has dropped almost in half, from 39 to 21. And nearly 20 percent of those with two-star-equivalent ranks have signaled their intention to leave in what is an unprecedented exodus, according to an accounting provided by the American Foreign Service Association.

“Where is the mandate to pull the foreign service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?” Barbara Stephenson, the union’s president, asked in a letter to membership this week.

Mr. Tillerson is in the middle of a departmentwide reorganization, an effort he has called his most important priority. But the staff reductions have nothing to do with that overhaul, according to those briefed on the plans.

Because the buyouts are voluntary, many who take the money and leave are likely to have skills or be in jobs that Mr. Tillerson is hoping to maintain or increase in a reorganized department.

Instead, the cutbacks are meant to make a down payment on the 31 percent budget cut that President Trump proposed for the department this year. That Congress rejected that suggestion and largely maintained the department’s budget has not affected Mr. Tillerson’s plans, a fact that is likely to infuriate many on Capitol Hill.

“These actions are going to harm our security and our ability to lead on the global stage,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In September, when the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a bill to maintain the department’s funding at prior levels, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, issued a statement, saying, “Now is not the time for retreat, now is the time to double down on diplomacy and development.”

But Mr. Trump has repeatedly indicated that he wants fewer diplomats.

Asked about the many vacancies at the State Department, Mr. Trump said in an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News: “You know, don’t forget, I’m a businessperson and I tell my people, ‘When you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them.’ But we have some people that I’m not happy with there.”

Pressed about critical positions like the assistant secretary of state, Mr. Trump responded in a statement that has since reverberated around the State Department. “The one that matters is me,” he said. “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

Similarly, when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia forced the United States in July to reduce its diplomatic personnel by 755, Mr. Trump said he was grateful.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people, because now we have a smaller payroll,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

Mr. Tillerson has sharply pared down the number of briefings he receives from senior diplomats as well as the number of people who normally travel with the secretary of state. As a result, Mr. Tillerson has had repeated gaffes in foreign capitals. He is also wildly unpopular in the State Department, and the president is rumored to be eager to replace him.

Some employees will not be eligible for the buyouts, including many members of the security, information technology, medical and building staffs, areas in which the department is trying to hire more people or is offering bonuses for them to stay.