WASHINGTON — The State Department plans to fly all of its ambassadors and other top diplomatic envoys from around the world into Washington next week for a two-day conference, even if the ongoing partial government shutdown continues.
Most State Department employees have been furloughed or are working without pay since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. But the department will pay for travel expenses and other costs related to the forum, called the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference.
The conference is scheduled to take place on Jan. 16 and 17, and embassy leaders from around the world are expected to be absent for about one week from the countries in which they work. The conference was first held in 2011, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, and has been held twice since.
Asked for comment on Friday, the State Department issued a statement that said officials had decided to continue with the conference because “it is essential to the conduct of foreign affairs essential to national security.”
The department noted that Congress recently confirmed 23 ambassadors. It called the conference “particularly important and timely in helping them get off to the right start.” Bloomberg News first reported the decision to hold it, despite the shutdown.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to attend the forum after returning from a long trip through the Middle East.
But some former diplomats are criticizing the State Department for pressing forward with the conference.
“The notion that it’s imperative that we have to get all chiefs of mission together is nonsense,” said Brett Bruen, a former American diplomat who also worked in the White House during the Obama administration and now runs a consulting firm in Washington.
Mr. Bruen said the chiefs of mission should remain abroad, reassuring their host governments of American reliance despite the federal shutdown that was prompted by President Trump’s demand for funding to build a wall on the United States border with Mexico.
“They need to be out in the field at this moment when America’s credibility is on the line,” Mr. Bruen said. “They don’t need to be back in Washington having long-term discussions with senior administration officials when the threats are immediate to America’s credibility.”
“Their role right now is being the ambassadors of assurance and reliability,” he said.
A State Department official said it was not possible to divert the money budgeted for the conference to the payroll.
Most State Department employees were last paid on Jan. 3. Their next paycheck, to be issued on Jan. 17, might have zero dollars, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Local citizens employed at American embassies overseas are still working with pay, but that could end if the shutdown continues.
During a shutdown in 2013, about 3,000 local employees went without pay at one point, the official said.
United States citizens and others working in the consular sections of embassies, which deal with visas and passports, are still working with pay because the budget for those operations generally comes from visa and passport fees.