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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.