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G.W. SchulzBack to OpinionG.W. Schulz

Coast Guard faces funding cuts despite oil spill, other disasters

Members of Congress are questioning whether cuts proposed by the Obama administration for the U.S. Coast Guard are the right idea in light of the recent Gulf oil spill and other headline-grabbing incidents that occurred this year.

Two Coast Guard ships and aircraft were the earliest to arrive when the federal government learned of the oil-rig explosion last month that set off what is now a major environmental disaster. Search-and-rescue operations continued for three days until more than 100 crew members were found and attempts to locate 11 more rig workers were ended.

Image courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Under current plans for the Coast Guard, it would lose $75 million over the previous year and uniformed personnel would be reduced by 1,100. The ranking member of a key Senate homeland security committee, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, argues that $200 million the White House intended to use for enhancing security in metropolitan areas where terrorism trials were slated to take place, should be reallocated to offset Coast Guard losses.

“Since the Coast Guard keeps coming to the rescue over and over again, and since it’s very difficult to find anyone who agrees with the plan to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in major cities, doesn’t it make sense for the administration to submit a revised budget that fully restores the money cut out of the Coast Guard using those funds?” Collins asked homeland security chief Janet Napolitano during a May 17 hearing.

“Senator Collins, I will be happy to transmit that message to the White House,” responded Napolitano, a former Arizona governor who’s focused significant energy on drug-war violence along the nation’s southern border since taking office. The committee’s chair, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), has also been critical of the budget reductions, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, has reportedly described them as “pennywise and pound foolish.”

The budget among other things calls for decommissioning a strike force coordination center in North Carolina, which supports specialized teams in charge of responding to oil spills and the release of hazardous materials. Search and rescue functions generally would lose nearly $50 million, while drug interdiction, considered a “homeland security mission,” would see the biggest increase of more than $45 million.

Over half of the Coast Guard’s resource hours since 2002 have been committed to homeland security missions, such as port security, migrant interdiction and defense readiness, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Increased demands burdened available Coast Guard resources after the Sept. 11 attacks as it sought to balance pressure from Congress to ramp up its role in the fight against terrorism and its traditional responsibilities of marine safety, search and rescue and environmental protection. Furthermore, poor oversight of a massive and costly program to update the Coast Guard’s ships, aircraft and additional equipment led to withering criticism that officials there were wasting money.

Much of the acquisition project’s management was relinquished to a private joint venture formed by the defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen admitted in 2007 went too far in turning over government control. He said during a series of candid public statements referring to the program that government and industry “failed to accurately predict and control costs.”

In the meantime, the Coast Guard relies on an aging fleet that required emergency repairs during its response to the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year. Aircraft needing spare parts were diverted during evacuation efforts, Allen told the National Press Club in February, and because of the size of the catastrophe, the Coast Guard was “overextended.” Personnel from the Coast Guard also provided significant aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina during 2005 and helped save residents in Tennessee as torrential floods covered the western part of the state this spring.

Defense and homeland security expert James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote May 11 on the think tank’s website that some Coast Guard cuts are currently on the table because the federal government believed major incidents like oil spills were declining and it could afford to trim those response capabilities. Carafano argues that the reduced budget strains a Coast Guard already enduring an array of competing missions:

Slow-going Coast Guard modernization and cutting back on force structure to save money were mistakes even before the Gulf Coast catastrophe. Continuing with that wrong-headed plan makes even less sense now. A robust Coast Guard is essential to preventing future disasters at sea by enforcing regulations that prevent industrial accidents or thwarting deliberately malicious activity. Furthermore, cuts will only ensure that the federal response to the next disaster will be worse.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project’s blog, Elevated Risk, here.


  • greg

    As a career coastie these latest reports of fiscal cutbacks reminds me of the period after vietnam. We had a tremendous “surplus” of manpower and no new res ponsibilities,,”so lets reduce the #of personnel and cut the budget.” Congressional history repeats itself. Forty years and the politicians haven’t learned much. The CG is one of the most cost effective groups of men and women around. Attaboy to ADM Thad Allen.

  • DeeAnn Leanna

    My son is waiting to be called to Coast Guard boot camp. His recruiter told him that it could be more than 12 months before he is called due to the budget cuts proposed by our government. Because of the budget cuts they are looking at cutting over 1100 positions when they should be adding people in these times of need. The Coast Guard is one of our nations most needed assets and yet we are looking at cutting their budget rather than increasing it. Come on people! Look who responds to all of our disasters!! Write to your congressman now!

  • Dave

    The layoff number has been increased to 1500 full time Coast Guard personnel, when what we should be doing is adding to the ranks by that number.

    I really don’t think the public has a full appreciation of the role the Coast Guard plays in protecting the security of our nation.

    For number of reasons I am convinced the information is classified by design. If we knew what the Coast Guard has intercepted and who has attempted to undermine and harm our country the dread of that knowledge would succeed where the missions of our enemies have been interdicted.

    Beyond that, the State Department, the Executive branch and Congress would be forced to respond when discretion would dictate otherwise.

    To not be able to fully appreciate the essential nature of the Coast Guard is unfortunate but necessary. for these conditions there are those who know better but apparently the Administration has deaf ears and other priorities.

    This administration has managed to place sufficient dots on the graph that a child can begin to see the trend of ill conceived policies and choices it it making, The larger question though, remains, is this ill conceived or simply the product of suspect motives?

    Filling desk jobs in in Washington at great expense to the national budget may provide political favors among other base contingencies but it does not get the job done where the bow of the Cutter meets the waves.

    Sacrificing the essential to the benefit of the nonessential is what the party in power has always done best. The last and most important question is…. How many more opportunities will we give out enemies before we give them the last one they will ever need?

    It is foolhardy to think we are too big to fall. No one is too big to fall, else the expression, “the bigger they are the harder they fall”, would never have been coined.

    We need competence that only comes from experience in our Government. However, to our misfortune, all we have now is the promise of hope and change and that my friends is faint comfort in these perilous times.

  • Pancho

    I’m in the process of recruitment in the CG. I’m in the last year of their age cutoff, so I’ve been able to live life more than the average recruit prospect. There are many intelligent, able-bodied individuals that have so much to bring to this branch that are being turned away due to the strict screening of the CG. If there was a re-allotment of funds for the CG, they can still be incredibly selective and still allow many top-notch prospects to serve (many of which already have their degrees and wish to be enlisted insead of officer).

    Each time you relax on a beach that is still open, you should thank the CG. Every time you enjoy any type of Alaskan, Pacific, Altantic, or Gulf seafood from our coasts, thank the CG for keeping our fishermen and women safe and giving them confidence to do their job and make a living. The Guard is able to be more efficient than state troopers and the Border Patrol in drug interdictions and immigrant interceptions (with much respect to the police and border patrol, they have rough jobs) because of the gear they have to use and the way they can do their job. While other planes and helo’s are flying away from the storms, the CG is flying into them.

    While we need the efficient fighting machines that are the Marines, the marine superpower called the Navy, the air and space controllers in the Air Force, and the backbone named the Army…the CG is much needed as well because they are the ones that hang back here and stand watch. No days off, no breaks. Their war is always going so long as there are people that are plotting terrorism within the U.S., smuggling drugs, trafficking humans, and poaching vital organisms from the environment, among many other things.

    C’mon, Washington, don’t shoot yourself in the feet with this decision.