The U.S. Coast Guard rescues Alaskans. Now, it’s the one that may need rescuing.
On Nov. 25, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, creating the largest reorganization of the U.S. government since the creation of the Department of Defense. As part of the Homeland Security Act, authority over the U.S. Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.
Twelve years on, we can safely say that this move has been a mistake.
In recent years, we’ve seen the Coast Guard’s budget slashed even as its duties increase. It must now patrol an entire additional ocean — the Arctic — and it must do so with fewer ships, fewer aircraft, fewer personnel and less support from other government agencies.
We have seen the Coast Guard’s ships suffer from deferred maintenance, and programs to replace the Coast Guard’s fleet have been repeatedly reduced to levels below what Coast Guard commanders have said they need.
Juneau is home to the headquarters of Coast Guard District 17, which means we have been granted a front-row seat to a tragedy. The men and women of the Coast Guard are as good as ever, but the support they receive — or in this case, are not receiving — is pitiful.
The number of “cutter days” in Alaska — the days a ship works at sea — has fallen, according to statistics provided by the Coast Guard to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. So has the number of flight hours for the Coast Guard aircraft assigned to fisheries patrols.
The Coast Guard desperately needs icebreakers for its Arctic and Antarctic missions, but seeking funding for new tools seems like a fool’s errand when the Coast Guard can’t even get the funding it needs to pay for its existing ones.
Something must change.
Congress seems intent to make immigration an issue in the coming year. Early this week, the U.S. Senate approved a House-created bill that funds government operations through September. The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t included in that timeline — it’s been funded only through February.
With a Republican-dominated House and Senate beginning work in 2015, Congress wants to make immigration a political issue. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will be its focus. That puts the Coast Guard in the crossfire.
Alaska’s interests are best served by a strong and stable Coast Guard. The Department of Homeland Security can’t provide that security.
Where, then, should the Coast Guard go? It belongs in the Department of Defense.
Under the Defense Department, the Coast Guard would be assured of stable funding and a reliable network of support. The Coast Guard already works closely with the U.S. Navy, and it makes sense in terms of efficiency to move the two organizations closer together.
Congress has been reluctant to cut funding for the U.S. military, even during the recent recession, and within the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard would be assured of financial stability — something long lacking.
We doubt Coast Guardsmen would be fans of any move to put their agency within the Department of the Navy, but efficiency and security should take no back seat to inter-service rivalries.
If the Department of the Navy is not a suitable home, the Coast Guard should be named a coequal service alongside the Army, Navy and Air Force. It already performs a job of equal importance, and it’s time that the Coast Guard received the credit it’s due.
— Juneau Empire,