Lawmaker: Coast Guard More Efficient at Stopping Drug Flow than Proposed Border Wall
BY JOHN C. MARCARIO, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Coast Guard has demonstrated that the most efficient way to stop drugs from flowing into the country is to get additional funding for its operations, not building a wall along the southern border, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee said March 14.
According to the service, it seized 233 metric tons of narcotics on the high seas last year. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the United States seized about 20 metric tons on land during that same time frame.
“You want to spend your money the best way possible,” he said.
During the March 14 hearing on Capitol Hill, the outgoing commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, whose four-year term is ending in May, said attempts to get narcotics into the country are mostly coming from water, not land.
“What’s most vulnerable is where it moves in bulk and that moves predominantly in the maritime domain, way beyond our border,” Zukunft said.
The Coast Guard has primary responsibility to enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable federal laws on, under and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
“The best, most efficient way to stop drugs from coming into the country is the United States Coast Guard. Not a ‘beautiful wall,’” Garamendi said.
Earlier in the week, President Donald J. Trump looked at prototypes for the projected $18 billion wall along the Southern border during a visit to San Diego.
The hearing, which focused on the Coast Guard’s fiscal 2019 budget request, also discussed icebreaking, unmanned systems and cutter funding.
“The service is hampered by lackluster funding requests that don’t meet the needs of the service,” said subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who continued to question if the Coast Guard should remain an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Zukunft said that as the Coast Guard looks beyond major projects, such as the Offshore Patrol Cutter and National Security Cutter, and works on modernizing its entire fleet, “We need predictable funding. … We are clearly on the right trajectory.”
Trump requested $10.93 billion for the Coast Guard in fiscal 2019, a request that is in line with the spending caps there were put in place by Budget Control Act of 2011.
Trump modified the fiscal 2019 budget request to reflect the increased cap levels through an addendum that included $720 million for the Coast Guard for the construction of the first heavy polar icebreaker, according to the subcommittee.
With this additional funding, the total request for the Coast Guard is $11.65 billion, which is an increase of $977 million above the fiscal 2018 requested level of $10.67 billion, and an increase of $979 million over the fiscal 2017 enacted level of $10.67 billion.
Trump requested $1.89 billion for the procurement, construction and improvements account, a $516.7 million increase over the fiscal 2017 enacted level.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, asked if the Coast Guard needs more assets to combat the drug threat facing the nation.
“We do not have enough ships, or aircraft, to be fully equipped for this mission,” Zukunft said.
The commandant noted that the service is looking at adding unmanned systems to the fleet, along with additional surveillance capabilities, and continuing to work on partnerships with allied nations in the Caribbean.
Lawmakers seemed concerned with the funding, and schedule, for the icebreaker modernization program. The service has one heavy icebreaker in the fleet, Polar Star, that is nearing the end of its lifespan. The service hopes to replace it with three more heavy icebreakers. However, an exact timeline on when construction for a new one begins, and when Polar Star would be decommissioned, remains in flux.
“We do have some problems with this current schedule,” Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said.
Zukunft said he is concerned about funding for a new icebreaking fleet, noting the service needs to continue to build out the program of record.
“It is an investment in our industrial base. Built in the U.S. with U.S. steel. … There is going to be tension with how do we fund other things within DHS?” he said.