Washington Waves
Washington Waves

Commandant: Coast Guard Approaching Tipping Point

Washington, D.C.—U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz warned the service is approaching a tipping point on readiness at the same time its members are doing more in increasingly complex and dangerous environments with aging platforms and infrastructure.

“Over the last eight years, our operations and support funding has essentially been flatlined, eroding our service’s purchasing power by almost 10 percent,” Schultz said in his State of the Coast Guard address, which he delivered at Base Los Angeles-Long Beach.

“In a modestly funded organization like the Coast Guard, this has resulted in deferred maintenance, a strained and undersized workforce, and antiquated information systems.”

Schultz said the Coast Guard requires a 5 percent annual increase in operating and support funding to be “absolutely ready, relevant and responsive.”

Meanwhile, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved by voice vote measures to ensure that members of the Coast Guard, like those of the other branches of the military, would get paid on time and in full during government shutdowns, and to direct the Coast Guard to submit a report on how it will be impacted by climate change over the next two decades.

Corps Appropriations Hearing

In addition to bipartisan criticism over deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials heard from key House appropriators about so-called pay-to-play language that critics say rewards affluent communities for coming up with their own funding, and a revived effort to do away with their civil works program “as we know it.”

“We are going to take a very close look at these provisions and make sure that all citizens of this country are treated equally,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies, said of the pay-to-play language.

Kaptur even suggested the language might run afoul of a 2018 provision barring such preferences for local sponsors.

An even harsher assessment of the approach outlined in the budget came from Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the subcommittee’s ranking member, who heaped criticism not on the Corps officials at the hearing but the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for wanting to “mess around” with the agency’s work plan once it is developed. OMB’s approach basically amounts to earmarks, he said. He recalled an amendment he successfully sponsored last year that barred such actions and promised it would return this year.

“Of course, OMB goes nuts over that because they want to do exactly what you are talking about,” Simpson said.

Facing such strong bipartisan criticism during the hearing on his agency’s budget request, R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, offered a subdued defense but assured the subcommittee that the administration believes its approach is allowed and does not actually “reward” affluent communities.

Simpson also singled out language in the administration’s budget proposal that he described as an attempt to revive the congressionally rejected idea of reorganizing the Corps.

He pointed to a new effort to turn the Corps into a grant-making agency and allow non-federal sponsors to jump in front of the line for federal money by agreeing to fund a larger part of a project’s cost or do so on a earlier schedule than required by law.

“I do not support either of these goals,” Simpson said.

Neither Kaptur nor Simpson spent much time on the actual fiscal year 2020 budget proposal that would provide roughly $4.8 billion for Corps’ civil works program, cutting nearly a third from the fiscal year 2019 level, a reduction that both made clear was unacceptable.

Training Ship Cut

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said her state’s maritime academy would come up short on getting the next replacement training ship under the Trump administration’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Instead of a $300 million ship provided in each of the last two years, Collins said the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal includes only $205 million for a “different, smaller capacity training ship.”

Not only would that be detrimental to the training needs of the Maine Maritime Academy, she told Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, but the Maritime Administration would be required to start from scratch and depart from the years of planning and design work on the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel.

Chao assured Collins, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, she would work with her on the issue.

WOTUS Comments

Congressional Democrats issued a statement expressing disappointment over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rejection of a request to extend the comment period on its effort to revise the definition of the Waters of the United States rule.

“Over 160 of our House colleagues, 36 senators, governors, state officials, agencies, businesses, and conservation groups asked for an extension of the EPA’s 60-day comment period on the plan to replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule,” stated Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

“The proposed rule will make streams and waterways that more than 117 million Americans utilize for drinking water more vulnerable to pollution. A 60-day comment period is insufficient for an issue that affects so many Americans.”

 Democrats wanted the Trump administration’s comment period to at least match the 207 days offered by the Obama administration when it developed its WOTUS rule in 2015.

They noted that effort generated more than a million comments.

Veto Override Fails

As expected, a Democratic-led effort in the U.S. House to override President Donald Trump’s veto of a resolution blocking his national emergency declaration and plan to spend additional billions on a wall on the southern border failed to garner the required two-thirds vote.

With 14 Republicans joining a united Democratic caucus, the vote was 248 to 181.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan authorized $1 billion to be used in support of building pedestrian fencing and related projects on the border.