By Yeganeh Torbati and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has maintained a hiring freeze at the State Department even though it was lifted for the rest of the federal government, a spokesman said on Thursday, as the agency begins to downsize before Congress approves funding cuts.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that the hiring freeze would remain until the plan to downsize and reorganize had been fully developed. He could not give a timeline for the reorganization.
“We can’t be onboarding people when we don’t know what our reorganization is going to ultimately look like,” Toner told a briefing for reporters.
Trump’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 would cut 28 percent of the budget for U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress, which approves the budget, have rejected the prospect of such cuts.
It was not known whether the White House directed Tillerson to keep the hiring freeze in place for the State Department or whether other agencies would also refuse to lift the hiring ban.
Two State Department officials said Tillerson plans to downsize staff over a period of two to three years.
Tillerson informed State Department employees of the decision on Wednesday, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.
While Trump’s original hiring freeze notice on Jan. 23 excluded political appointees, it has stopped the hiring of rank-and-file workers and the replacement of others who have resigned or retired.
William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said the Trump administration may have to seek congressional approval if the hiring freeze changes the function of programs congress explicitly voted to fund.
Hoagland said the administration would have to send what is known as an impoundment resolution if the State Department “jeopardizes what that agency is there to begin with by not filling positions that are vacated.” Congress would then have to approve the resolution, Hoagland said.
The State Department’s Toner said Tillerson was not breaking any federal rule by maintaining the hiring freeze.
“My understanding is that (Tillerson) has the jurisdiction to keep this freeze in place as we go about this presidentially-mandated” reorganization, Toner said.
The Office of Management and Budget, which handles federal budgeting, did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters on Tuesday that the hiring freeze would be lifted but that agencies will be asked to remain mindful of Trump’s goal to reduce the federal work force.
Tillerson said in March that the State Department’s current spending was “simply not sustainable.”
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Arshad Mohammed.; Editing by Julia Edwards Ainsley, David Alexander and Alistair Bell)