Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said Wednesday that he’s “guardedly optimistic” the heavy icebreaker chopped off the budget by House appropriators will find its way back into the final conference bill as “we need that ship now.”
Under the House version of the Homeland Security spending bill hashed out by appropriators before the summer recess, the Coast Guard would get $9.3 billion, which doesn’t include the requested icebreaker funds.
The current Senate version of the appropriations bill keeps the icebreaker money in there, while the House version reallocates the money in part to fund a border wall. President Trump has threatened to veto a bill that doesn’t have wall money and other immigration provisions, which could lead to a government shutdown at the end of September.
At a Center for Strategic & International Studies event in Washington, Schultz acknowledged that “the appropriations process is a long process, and we’re pleased that the president’s budget for fiscal year 2019 included $750 million for an icebreaker.”
“That was an ask from the president, the Senate marked up their version of the bill, there was still $750 million in there for a heavy or polar icebreaker, the House, through some negotiations, the new Homeland Security subcommittee chair, Chairman [Kevin] Yoder, made some space for additional wall monies,” he continued. “That bill has to be conferenced. Some of the discussion in recent days has talked about maybe Homeland [appropriations], because of the contentiousness, might be a post-midterm-election type of bill to actually get it to go to fruition or get over the goal line.”
Despite the budget roadblock, Schultz said his cautious optimism is buoyed in part by “strong interest in the administration.”
“The secretary of Homeland Security is committed to supporting us on the icebreaker. The president’s talked about ships, recapitalizing the Coast Guard… so I’m going to take a guardedly optimistic approach that this thing has a lot of ground to cover,” he said. “There’s still a lot of interest in getting an icebreaker replaced, our 40-plus-year-old Polar Star, which is the only heavy icebreaker in the U.S. arsenal… we need that ship now.”
Schultz said that his command goal is to deliver readiness, “that we can get out there and serve and protect the American taxpayer, that we’re relevant.”
“We’re the only armed service that’s located in the Department of Homeland Security, we’re the fifth armed service, we’re a law enforcement agency, a regulatory body. We’re a really unique instrument in national security, when you roll it up,” he said.
Still, the Coast Guard has “been starved a bit on the operating side of the budget.”
Since sequestration began thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011, Schultz noted, “We’ve been a flat organization. We lost 10 percent purchasing power. And that operating and support… that’s the place I’ve got to press into. And that is really what supports your people. Things like healthcare. Things like getting folks to professional development… we’re only touching a small part of the workforce.”
“We have fantastic folks, the best people we’ve ever had,” the commandant added, but “we’ve got to be an employer of choice. We’ve got to understand what it takes to keep people motivated to stay in the Coast Guard.”
Asked if there have been any curve balls since assuming command two months ago, Schultz reported “no real surprises” on the job.
“The icebreaker’s tracking, you’re feeling pretty good, then suddenly the House markup doesn’t have the icebreaker. I am guardedly optimistic, but things change quick. It’s a dynamic environment,” he said. “I think one of the things, as we talked about, this ready, relevant, responsive Coast Guard — demand for Coast Guard services has never been higher.”
Schultz also said that a “rewrite” of the Arctic Strategy with a greater focus on national security could be done by the end of the year.
“It’s no longer an emerging frontier,” he said. “It’s a competitive space; it is about competition. We’ve got to press into that.”