Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took issue with what could happen to funding at the Coast Guard and other mission-critical agencies within the Department of Homeland Security if the administration’s goal of funneling funds en masse toward border security comes to fruition.
The president’s 2020 budget request would slash 30 percent from the Science and Technology Directorate’s budget from fiscal year 2019 funding levels. And while the Coast Guard got $10.3 billion in discretionary funding last year, which helped much-needed recapitalization projects, the current budget request would reduce that to $9.3 billion, with an overall Coast Guard budget reduction of more than $700 million.
At a Thursday hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (D-W.Va.) noted that “given all of the department’s critical needs, I am again disappointed that many of the parts of this budget request are not grounded in reality.”
“The request offers critical investments by assuming that the appropriate committees of Congress will authorize new revenue. It also assumes that the appropriate committees of Congress will restructure FEMA grants. It also proposes that the Coast Guard shipbuilding funds in a way that could force the government to break pre-existing contracts, and it fails to annualize the pay raise Congress provided for the department’s employees,” Capito said. “These imaginary offsets allow the department to propose spending money it basically doesn’t have.”
Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) noted that nearly half of DHS leadership positions, including Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, are filled with acting officials.
“And with all due respect to the dedicated officials that serve in those jobs… the vacuum of leadership at DHS that this creates will only serve to harm morale and, perhaps worse, leave us in a more vulnerable situation as a nation,” Tester said.
The senator said it’s imperative to not “lose sight of the fact that the DHS is made up of 14 major components, all with a mission to protect this country, land, air, sea and cyberspace,” including strategic requirements in the Arctic that need additional Coast Guard resources.
“Unfortunately, the department’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would only increase funding for border security and immigration enforcement by 20 percent while cutting funds for the rest of the department by 8 percent. This creates an unfortunate imbalance,” Tester added. “…The Coast Guard’s capital budget would be cut by $1 billion.”
McAleenan told lawmakers that “even as we face challenging border security and humanitarian issues DHS is always a multi-mission department and we will not lose momentum across any of our numerous efforts, including cybersecurity and securing the 2020 elections, the upcoming hurricane season or any of the multiple areas that the American people rely on our department to protect them.”
“For the U.S. Coast Guard, the budget continues to fund the offshore patrol cutter, the cornerstone of the fleet, and advances the Polar Security Cutter Program,” he said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) asked McAleenan if he would “commit to following the direction and intent of Congress and limiting [ICE] detention beds within the bounds that we set without reprogramming funds that we have allocated for disaster relief” and funding the Coast Guard.
“I will commit to working with this committee and continually updating you on our operational requirements,” McAleenan replied.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), whose state stands to gain up to 450 jobs from VT Halter Marine Inc., of Pascagoula, Miss., winning the polar icebreaker contract, praised the Coast Guard as a “true fan.”
“As we say, they punch well above its weight class, and despite limited resources and the broadening scope of responsibility every day, and the changing America that’s changing before our eyes, the Coast Guard is certainly dutiful in executing its diverse and challenging missions and demonstrating its dual functionality as both the military service and the law enforcement authority that is so important,” she said.
“Coast Guard Cutter James recently seized nine tons of cocaine and detained over 40 drug smugglers,” Hyde-Smith said. “Despite the success of the James and other NSCs, and that the Coast Guard seizes more drugs than all other federal agencies combined, the Coast Guard is still only able to target a fraction of known smuggling in the SOUTHCOM theater.”
McAleenan replied that “it’s a sincere privilege having worked alongside” the Coast Guard and FEMA “for almost two decades to have the chance to support them in their resource needs and the new role.”
“I also agree strongly with your comments on the importance of the national security cutter in the counter narcotics mission and the source and transit zone,” the acting secretary said. “At CBP our Marine Patrol Aircraft and the referrals that they made, if we didn’t have a cutter on the water a lot of that would not be interdicted so I could not agree more on their critical role in stopping cocaine headed toward our borders.”
McAleenan said he’s “obviously” spoken with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz “about the polar security cutter and how pleased we are that that program is advancing.”
“I did ask him about the funding into 2020, is that going to be enough to maintain the momentum. He says it is for the long lead items, and we are committed to that program going forward and it is absolutely a critical part of our Coast Guard fleet planning,” he added. “So we look forward to working with the committee going forward in the future on that.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) stressed that attention must be paid to Coast Guard needs such as infrastructure, housing and family support.
“Time and time again I hear we don’t have adequate support for childcare facilities on any of our Coast Guard installations. I mean, you have small coastal towns that support our Coast Guard like we do. You have limited ability outside of the base there. So these are things that I think we all look to. I know that we provide some additional support for those subsidies for childcare that was greatly, greatly welcomed,” she said. “So you just remind us again of the very important role that we have to help our Coast Guard men and women and their families. It’s greatly appreciated. We never should have allowed them to be subject to that 35-day pause in their compensation. That was wrong for them.”
“I have been asked to figure out how we can work to ensure that our military spouses including our Coast Guard spouses are not discriminated against when they go into these small communities and they are looking for employment and as soon as the employer finds out that they are a Coast Guard spouse,” Murkowski added.
McAleenan agreed that “we really need to be strong in all of these areas of the department and that is one of the things I want to look at department-wide is where the best practices, how can we raise our game to a higher common denominator especially for military families, taking very good care of them.”