Capitol Hill lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the Bush administration is cutting critical Coast Guard funding, including $31 million for rescue missions, despite the agency’s success in rescuing 33,000 storm victims in the last hurricane season.
“The cuts to search and rescue are particularly incomprehensible in light of the heroic performance of the Coast Guard during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
President Bush has requested nearly $8.2 billion in the 2007 budget for the Coast Guard, an increase of $127 million, or about 1.6 percent. However, lawmakers say the new funding is for higher fuel costs and for personnel, and $50 million is set aside to begin designing the agency’s new headquarters.
“I am concerned that when these costs are added up, the administration is actually requesting less money for the Coast Guard to carry out its traditional and port security missions in the next fiscal year,” says Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Coast Guard officials faced criticism from Republicans and Democrats on one House and two Senate panels this week for the proposed cuts.
Mr. Chertoff defended the spending request and the administration’s decision to spend 63 percent of the Coast Guard’s budget on homeland security missions.
“One measure of how the Coast Guard has performed and the fact that we haven’t compromised its other missions is the magnificent performance found in New Orleans last summer where we got more rescues than in several of the previous years — 33,000 rescues. And I think that shows the capabilities are there,” Mr. Chertoff told a Senate panel.
Master Chief Petty Officer Franklin Welch assured one House panel that the “Coast Guard has a long-standing reputation of using creativity and extreme resourcefulness to overcome the many challenges presented to our work force.”
The administration’s budget for fiscal 2007 also wants millions spent on ships nearing or past the service life, but lawmakers want to expedite the Deepwater program to build new ships.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, predicts he will be dead before the aging ships, some of which are falling apart, are replaced.
“The Coast Guard will be the FEMA of 2010 if we do not invest in it now,” said the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which got low scores for its disaster response last year.
“How serious is the administration when the Coast Guard Deepwater budget for replacing its ships, planes and helicopters will not even be completed until 2026?” Mr. Byrd asked.
“Man, I would have long since met my maker by then. I hope you folks will carry on in my stead. I don’t know what good it’ll do you,” Mr. Byrd said.