As superstorm Sandy devastated the U.S. Eastern seaboard, the Coast Guard led rescue efforts from the sea, hoisting 14 people to safety after the HMS Bounty capsized in 18-foot seas off North Carolina.
Such Coast Guard missions may be in jeopardy if President Barack Obama and Congress don’t agree on a deficit-reduction plan. Failure to do so would trigger more than $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts across government beginning early next year.
Instead of getting more funding that supporters say would help replace a fleet of aging ships and aircraft, the service would be hit with $439 million in cutbacks under those reductions, known as sequestration. It would be the second budget decline for the Coast Guard in three years, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
“We should not be cutting the Coast Guard,” U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo, a Republican from New Jersey who chairs the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said in an interview. “It’s not a matter of them cutting out fat, now they’re cutting out bone. They’re working with assets that are old; they’re working with personnel that are stretched out; they cannot take this kind of a hit.”
The Coast Guard, founded in 1790, is one of the five armed forces of the U.S., and the only one within the Homeland Security Department. It was formerly part of the Department of Transportation.
While the Coast Guard’s budget has increased almost 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, other Homeland Security units have received bigger boosts. The service’s share of the department’s budget has shrunk to about 22 percent from almost 27 percent in 2006, when it claimed the largest chunk in the past decade.
Its budget fell by more than 5 percent from $11.1 billion in fiscal 2010 to $10.6 billion in 2012, according to OMB records.
“Budget issues do not affect our rescue efforts,” said Carlos Diaz, a Coast Guard spokesman, referring to the Hurricane Sandy efforts. “Rescuing people and getting them out of harm’s way is what we do.”
The Coast Guard joined with local police and fire agencies in responding to emergency and mayday calls, and deployed helicopters, boats and other vessels to help in the recovery efforts.
‘Spirit of Resilience’
The service on Oct. 29 saved 14 crew members of the HMS Bounty, a replica of the vessel that was the scene of a 1789 mutiny. One Bounty crew member was killed and recovered. The Coast Guard suspended its hunt for the ship’s captain after a 3-day search with a 378-foot High Endurance Cutter, the Gallatin, built in 1968.
While Obama himself proposed a cut in Coast Guard funding in his budget request for fiscal 2013, he hailed the service’s “spirit of resilience and strength” shown in its Sandy rescue operation. Congress hasn’t finished the 2013 spending bills.
“One of my favorite stories is down in North Carolina, the Coast Guard going out to save a sinking ship,” Obama said on Oct. 30. “They sent a rescue swimmer out, and the rescue swimmer said, ’Hi, I’m Dan. I understand you guys need a ride.’”
The Coast Guard’s current High Endurance Cutters are on average 43 years old. The older ships aren’t equipped for some of the Coast Guard’s missions, which have expanded since the service moved to Homeland Security in 2003, Admiral Robert Papp, the Coast Guard’s commandant, said in a March interview.
The duties have extended beyond U.S. shores to include drug enforcement, terrorism prevention and environmental protection in the Arctic, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
“It’s scary,” said Jessica Zuckerman, a research associate for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “People joke that some of these vessels would qualify for social security.”
The age of the ships poses “threats” to those who sail on them, as well as those who rely on them for rescue, Zuckerman said in an interview.
Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress said the agency needs to be bolstered.
“We’re obviously seeing more of these extreme weather events,” he said. “We’re going to need a stronger Coast Guard.”
Less With Less
Lawmakers on both sides of aisle said they were concerned about potential cuts to the agency.
The agency is at a “tipping point in its budget,” said U.S. Representative Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, adding that it’s “in real danger of doing less with less.”
Senator Susan Collins, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said the Coast Guard lost 528 operational cutter days in 2011 due to engineering failures in its High Endurance Cutters, compared with 228 days in fiscal 2007.
Collins, a Maine Republican, said in an e-mailed statement she was worried potential cuts will leave the Coast Guard without the capability to fulfill its missions, “including providing an absolutely essential response to future catastrophic incidents.”