The U.S. Coast Guard, the federal agency that protects the state’s shores and ports, is the Eddie Aikau of the Hawaiian Islands.
Week after week, Coast Guard teams pluck distressed mariners from danger just as Aikau, the famous Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer, rescued scores of swimmers on the North Shore.
In one month alone, from mid-February to mid-March, the Coast Guard’s 14th district, based in Honolulu, rescued six people when their sailboat ran aground; hoisted a 52-year-old from his homemade fiberglass boat as it ran onto the rocks near Oahu, and interdicted nine suspected smuggling vessels, seizing some 13,700 pounds of cocaine.
About the same time, rumors began swirling in Washington that the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget was proposing to cut the Coast Guard budget by $1.3 billion, stirring anxiety among the congressional delegations of coastal states.
Hawaii Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz joined a group of more than 20 senators criticizing such a cutback as “catastrophic.” And U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa joined a group of more than 50 representatives raising the same concern the next week.
Two words were nowhere to be found in the 53-page document: Coast Guard.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a memo that day saying that the Coast Guard’s funding level would in fact be flat, or in in precise bureaucratic language, “sustain current funding levels.”
Meanwhile, the nation’s other four armed services — none of which have law enforcement authority as the Coast Guard does — are being lavished with money. Trump asked for an additional $30 billion to be divided among the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, so it is almost certain that big funding increases are on the horizon for all of them.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that although the Coast Guard is one of the five branches of the armed services, it is not part of the Department of Defense. Instead, it’s under the Department of Homeland Security. The attention in that department is focused primarily on the nation’s southern border with Mexico because of Trump’s concern over illegal immigration.
Trump’s omission of the Coast Guard from his budget blueprint has drawn anger and rebuke from Republicans and Democrats, and the OMB’s decision to call for flat funding for the agency didn’t lessen their concern.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, called the administration’s budget proposal for the Coast Guard “laughable” at a congressional hearing April 4.
Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who chairs the Coast Guard and Marine Transportation subcommittee, told Fox News the proposed budget was “appalling” and an “insult.” Hunter added that it would “undercut the service to nearly the point of paralysis.”
Massive Area Of Responsibility
Actually, the Coast Guard has dealt with flat budgets for five years because of congressional gridlock over how to fund the federal government. Its funding falls into the category of “non-defense discretionary spending,” where budgets have been set by arbitrary financial caps. In fiscal year 2013, the Coast Guard received $10.1 billion; in fiscal year 2017, it got $10.3 billion.
“It’s ridiculous they would look at cutting a front-line homeland security function,” said Andy Winer, chief of staff to Schatz, in an interview with Civil Beat. Winer said the proposals have stirred a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations to restore or increase the Coast Guard’s budget.
People in Hawaii remain worried.
“Although the actual cuts to the Coast Guard are not known, indications are the Coast Guard will suffer cuts that will negatively affect their mission,” Hanabusa said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat.
Probably no other state would be as adversely affected as Hawaii. In an average week, officers assigned to District 14 save two lives, respond to 20 vessels in distress and handle the damage caused by five oil spills.
The district is also responsible for ensuring the safety of all ports in Hawaii and U.S. territories. The security of the port at Honolulu is essential because 85 to 90 percent of the manufactured goods and food that come to the state arrive by sea, according to Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Scott Carr.
District 14 is the largest single component of the Coast Guard, responsible for monitoring 12.2 million square miles of ocean. It spans eight time zones and touches on 33 countries.
The distances covered are immense. If an emergency arose in Guam, it would take a HC-130H aircraft about 12 hours to reach the scene from Honolulu; it would take a Coast Guard cutter operating at 12 knots about 12 days. By contrast, in District 7, which covers the Southeastern U.S., many missions can be completed in one or two hours.
District 14 is also responsible for patrolling and protecting the marine fisheries that are known as the “world’s tuna belt,” from which 60 percent of all tuna is harvested, and 90 percent of America’s coral reefs. Its oversight responsibilities grew when the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was expanded fourfold in August, although no additional funding went to the Coast Guard to cover the cost.
Slow To Replace Aging Vessels
After five years of flat funding, budget problems are wreaking havoc on the agency’s ability to modernize and update its fleet, equipment and infrastructure. Twenty-five of its cutters are more than 50 years old; one of the vessels was built 73 years ago, according to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft. Most of them, he said, have never been reconfigured for mixed-gender crews.
Speaking at the congressional hearing April 4, Coast Guard Master Chief Steven Cantrell said the age and deterioration of the fleet pose continual challenges.
“Many of our Coast Guard members continue to serve in ships and on stations that are older than their parents, or in some cases, their grandparents,” he told Congress.
Even when new ships are built to replace those that are functionally obsolete, there can be lapses when no vessels are available to take their place. The high endurance cutter Morgenthau, which has been doing heavy sea duty since the 1960s, was decommissioned in Honolulu this week.
The ship was active during the Vietnam War, when it provided naval warfare support to other vessels and patrolled coastal areas. More recently, it was used to enforce Iraq’s compliance with sanctions imposed by the United Nations and protected U.S. port cities and maritime traffic after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It’s a time capsule,” said Carr, the Coast Guard spokesman. It will be given to a friendly country or scrapped.
A new ship has been commissioned to replace it, the Legend-class Kimball, but is not expected to be available for service until next year.
“If a ship’s not ready, it’s not ready,” Carr said.
There is a bipartisan effort afoot to get more money for the Coast Guard. At the congressional hearing where Cantrell spoke about the aging of the fleet, subcommittee chairman Hunter said it had become obvious to him that the Coast Guard’s location within the Department of Homeland Security was hurting it financially.
Hunter and John Garamendi, a California Democrat who serves as ranking member of the Coast Guard subcommittee, said they intend to find out if they could have part of the Coast Guard’s budget transferred into the “defense discretionary” category instead of the “non-defense discretionary” budget, which could allow legislators to give the Coast Guard more money.
The two men serve together on the Armed Services Committee and on the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee.
“It seems to me the solution lies with us,” Garamendi told Hunter at the hearing.
“The Coast Guard should be fully funded, even at an amount greater than last year,” Garamendi said at the hearing.
“We are nowhere close to the budget numbers being final and I look forward to working with the Coast Guard to provide the service with the funding it needs to do its job,” Hunter said.
For the record, Aikau died when he and other mariners were on a small boat that was sinking. As their situation deteriorated, Aikau heroically set out on his surfboard to look for help.
The Coast Guard managed to save the rest of the crew members, and although they embarked on a massive search-and-rescue mission looking for Aikau, his body was never found.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.