- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

American diplomats are pressing Congress and the White House to end a 15-year-old practice of lowering their salaries by 16 percent when they leave Washington to serve abroad.

Their union, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), said the pay cut is making it difficult to staff embassies, consulates and other overseas posts, where most diplomats are expected to spend about two-thirds of their careers.

“We are working urgently with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to get an estimated $110 million adjustment in the 2006 budget, or sooner if possible,” said AFSA President John Limbert.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told State Department employees at a town-hall meeting last month that she would work to resolve the matter.

“It does have real resource implications, but it’s nonetheless an important issue, and I’ve already mentioned to OMB that I’ll be coming back at them about it. We’ll see how far we can get,” she said.

Foreign Service employees in Washington receive a “locality pay” of nearly 16 percent, intended to raise federal salaries to the level paid for comparable work in the private sector.

The Federal Pay Comparability Act of 1990 denies payment of Washington-level salaries to those serving overseas, although members of the intelligence community are not subject to that rule.

The locality pay is not a cost-of-living adjustment, which diplomats get in many foreign countries, such as Britain, Japan and Norway, as well as in Washington.

Dangerous and hardship posts, such as those in the Middle East and Africa, offer “differentials” of 5 percent to 25 percent above regular salaries. There are 75 posts with a 25 percent differential today versus 35 percent two decades ago.

“The disparity between Washington salaries and overseas salaries has caused these differentials to lose their effect in this ever-increasing list of dangerous countries,” Mr. Limbert said.

“This ever-growing financial disincentive to serve abroad is undermining diplomatic readiness and morale.”

But opponents of extending the locality pay overseas say there is no evidence that the current salary levels hurt morale, and Mr. Limbert conceded that he could not “show a direct correlation.”

The critics — most of them on Capitol Hill — also say the Foreign Service is already well paid and receives enough benefits, such as free housing abroad.

AFSA estimates that the Foreign Service suffers a “collective $110 million annual salary loss.”

A congressional staffer working on the issue said members of Congress would be “sympathetic” to a request from the White House to resolve the issue, but a decision has not been made.

Even if the OMB asked for additional funds, the figure is likely to be less than $110 million — probably about $80 million — which means that the amount would be less than the 16 percent diplomats receive in Washington, the staffer said.

“You have to be able to walk before you can run,” he said.

The State Department has imposed a six-year limit to service in Washington, but some employees find ways to stay in the capital longer. The limit becomes irrelevant when a diplomat reaches the most senior tier of the Foreign Service.

AFSA estimates that an entry-level officer serving abroad takes roughly an $8,000 pay cut annually, while the salary of a mid-level officer is reduced by as much as $16,000.

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