Tom Ridge’s Navy

The nomadic Coast Guard packs its bags, again.

Among the various elements of the most ambitious restructuring of the federal government since the National Security Act of 1947 is the proposed shifting of the Coast Guard into the new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. To move it, though, you have to know where to find it. Quick: Which Cabinet agency does the Coast Guard belong to today?

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know the answer (the Transportation Department). The Coast Guard is the rolling stone of U.S. government agencies. Prior to its founding in 1915 as an agency within the Treasury Department, various pieces of it were located within Treasury, the Justice Department, and the former Commerce and Labor Department. When the United States declared war on the Kaiser, the Coast Guard shifted over to the Navy. After the Armistice, it ambled back to Treasury. A month before Pearl Harbor, it returned to the Navy. After V-J day, it reverted to Treasury. In 1967, it burrowed itself into the newly created Transportation Department, but its crews could still be called up by the Pentagon in wartime, as occurred during the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez incident, and subsequent wars in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. (In the 1960s, enlisting in the Coast Guard became a popular draft-avoidance technique, though with 67 casualties, it wasn’t quite as safe as enrolling in divinity school. Among those who served in the Vietnam-era Coast Guard was Sam Nunn, later a much-respected chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.)

If it’s Tuesday, this must be the Department of Homeland Security. Small wonder that the Coast Guard tends to be a little hazy about its function. Semper Paratus, or “Always Ready,” is the Coast Guard’s motto, but ready for what? Six months before Sept. 11, James Loy, who was then Coast Guard commandant, declared in a “State of the Coast Guard” address that the Coast Guard’s “core mission” was “search and rescue.” After Sept. 11, Loy assigned 55 cutters, 42 aircraft, and hundreds of small boats to deter terrorist activity along the U.S. coastline, and the Coast Guard screened crew members of incoming commercial ships from foreign ports. But so heavy a commitment to the war on terror was “not sustainable,” Loy told Congress, given the agency’s other responsibilities. (In addition to hauling fishermen and pleasure-boaters out of the drink, these include drug interdiction, marine conservation, icebreaking, and catching waterborne illegal immigrants.) So Loy announced a “New Normalcy,” which he defined as “a higher tempo than existed on September 10th and somewhat lower than the tempo we have known since September 11.” On succeeding Loy on May 30, the new commandant, Thomas Collins, said maritime homeland security would remain the Coast Guard’s “first priority,” but he also called for “careful attention to all of our other missions.”

Presumably, a new Department of Homeland Security won’t allow the Coast Guard to temporize about the war on terrorism’s importance. Tom Ridge, or whoever else becomes Homeland Security secretary, will want to exercise greater control over the Coast Guard than the Transportation Department ever did. (A former Transportation Department official tells Chatterbox that under Transportation, the Coast Guard called the shots on policy decisions about 80 percent of the time.) Overall, though, the Coast Guard should be glad it’s being moved because the Coast Guard’s biggest headache these days is budgetary. Within the Transportation Department, an ever-rising level of highway expenditures necessarily means proportionally less for the Coast Guard. Congress loves to spend money on highways because voters demand it, but voters don’t especially care about outfitting the Coast Guard with newer boats and a larger work force. So the Coast Guard gets only $4.5 billion out of a total Transportation budget of about $61 billion (even though Coast Guard employees constitute more than one-quarter of the entire Transportation Department work force). By comparison, the Federal Highway Administration gets $31 billion. Once the Coast Guard becomes Ridge’s Navy, such budget constraints will be gone. In at least that respect, Bush’s reorganization plan will likely enlarge the size of government.