WASHINGTON — Following through on a threat, House Republicans on Tuesday proposed cutting the State Department's budget to protest its slow response in producing documents related to the investigation of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
The House Appropriations Committee said a budget plan for the State Department withholds nearly $700 million — or 15 percent of the agency's operational funds — until "requirements related to proper management of Freedom of Information Act and electronic communications are met."
The chairman of the Benghazi panel, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, and other Republicans have complained that the State Department has delayed providing emails and other documents involving former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of her top staffers.
Gowdy and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., threatened last month to withhold some State Department spending to ensure that officials move more quickly to comply with the committee's requests for documents.
A spokeswoman for the Appropriations panel said the budget plan withholds funds until State develops and implements a plan to reduce a backlog of FOIA and congressional requests.
State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach called the proposal "counterproductive" and said it would further constrain resources needed to meet sharp increases in requests for documents in recent years.
The State Department achieved nearly a 14 percent reduction in its appeals backlog last year, Gerlach said, but the agency's FOIA caseload has more than tripled since 2008 — jumping from 6,000 requests to nearly 20,000 last year.
The number of congressional oversight requests has also dramatically increased, Gerlach said.
Gowdy said in a statement that the committee has tried a variety of ways to get the State Department to produce needed documents, from talking to officials, writing letters, sending subpoenas, conducting hearings and signaling threats to the department's budget.
"The committee has been patient, but that patience has worn thin after months — and in some instances years — of non-compliance with congressional requests and subpoenas," Gowdy said. "The explanations and excuses are tired and unpersuasive. Regrettably it sometimes takes money to get agencies' attention."
The committee's requests for documents are reasonable and relevant to the Benghazi probe, Gowdy said, adding that the committee should have emails sent or received by top State Department officials before questioning those witnesses.
A federal judge last week ordered the State Department to release monthly batches of Clinton's email correspondence from her time as the nation's top diplomat starting June 30.
Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president, used a personal server and email address while serving as secretary of state. The State Department has said it needs more time to unveil the 55,000 pages of emails released by Clinton to the department. The department has released nearly 300 emails relating to the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
The spending plan proposed by the GOP-controlled panel provides the full amount that President Barack Obama requested for embassy security at more than 275 diplomatic facilities overseas, including facility upgrades and increased security personnel, as recommended by a review board appointed by the State Department to investigate the Benghazi attacks.
To help pay for those improvements, the bill eliminates voluntary contributions to the United Nations and other international organizations.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Benghazi panel, said cutting the State Department's budget "will only further slow down and drag out the Republican's taxpayer-funded political attack on Secretary Clinton. It makes no sense to cut the department's budget while continuing to give the select committee a blank check."
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