U.S. House Republicans are moving to block $696 million in State Department funding in a dispute over whether the agency is moving quickly enough to deliver e-mails and other documents to a panel probing the 2012 Benghazi attack.
The plan to hold back the money is in a House measure unveiled Tuesday that would fund State Department operations for fiscal 2016. It was suggested last month by Representative Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, who has accused the department of failing to turn over all relevant communications from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. mission.
“The bill withholds 15 percent of State Department’s operational funds until requirements related to proper management of Freedom of Information Act and electronic communications are met,” Republicans who control the House Appropriations Committee said in a statement accompanying the measure’s release.
The move is the latest episode in a long-running dispute between the department and the Republican-led House Select Committee. That panel has been investigating the actions of Clinton and other administration officials before and after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
A Republican aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the appropriations bill candidly, confirmed that the language is related but not directly tied to the Benghazi issue.
The measure would withhold the State Department funds until Secretary of State John Kerry certifies and reports to Congress on the preservation of department records, and until the department has developed and is implementing a plan to reduce the backlog of Freedom of Information Act and congressional requests.
The bill further requires notification and approval by the Appropriations Committee after these requirements are met to get the money released.
A State Department spokesman responded Tuesday to the threat of blocked funding by saying such a move will only cause more difficulty in fulfilling requests for documents.
“A 15 percent reduction in the State Department operations budget would be counterproductive and only further constrain resources to meet the exponential increases in requests over recent years,” the spokesman, Alec Gerlach, said in a statement.
Gowdy and other committee Republicans have expressed repeated frustration over whether their requests to the department for e-mails and other documents have been answered comprehensively enough, or in a timely fashion.
“The committee’s overarching preference remains for the State Department to produce all relevant documents needed to complete the task assigned to us by the House,” Gowdy said in a statement Tuesday. “Regrettably it sometimes takes money to get agencies’ attention.”
Revelations last year that Clinton used a private e-mail and a home server to conduct work business while she was secretary have added to that suspicion and tension. Her use of personal e-mail while in office has shadowed the start of her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Gowdy of South Carolina said last month in a report marking the panel’s first year that, “in addition to highlighting the public’s right to know substantial pieces of information still to be disclosed, the House should also consider motivating the executive branch through the appropriations process.”
Democrats on the Benghazi committee respond that the Republican-controlled panel keeps broadening and changing its requests. Gowdy’s committee has said a final report on its findings probably won’t be released until 2016, just months before the presidential election.
“The Select Committee has been the cause of the delay -- waiting six months after it was established before even requesting a single document from the State Department,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday.
Reducing agency funds and personnel “will only further slow down and drag out the Republicans’ taxpayer-funded political attack on Secretary Clinton,” Cummings said.
Gerlach said that while the State Department remains committed to openness and transparency, its Freedom of Information Act caseload has increased enormously.
In fiscal 2008, the department received fewer than 6,000 new FOIA requests, Gerlach said. Last year, he said, it received almost 20,000, and the number of congressional oversight requests has also dramatically increased.
The operational funding that would be cut represents a fraction of the total allocation for the State Department and related agencies, which includes foreign aid and other programs they run.
Altogether, the State and Foreign Operations spending plan would provide $47.8 billion in both discretionary financing and funds to combat terrorism. That’s $1.4 billion less than the enacted level for the current fiscal year and $6.1 billion less than the president’s request for these programs for the year that begins Oct. 1.
The appropriations committee said the bill provides the full amount that the department requested for embassy security at more than 275 diplomatic facilities overseas, including facility upgrades and security personnel, as recommended by an outside panel that reviewed the Benghazi attack. To make these investments, the bill would freeze assessed payments and eliminate voluntary contributions to the United Nations and international organizations.