Waterways Journal Editorial
WJ Editorial

Happy Birthday, Coast Guard

The United States Coast Guard celebrated its 231st birthday August 4. On that date in 1790, the first Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to build 10 revenue cutters to combat smuggling and enforce tariff laws.  The Coast Guard was the United States’ only armed maritime force for the next eight years, until the Navy was established in 1798.  

Revenue enforcement was very important, especially in those early years, when tariff revenues made up 90 percent of the U.S. budget. That was why the Coast Guard was known as the Revenue Cutter Service until 1915, when Congress renamed it the Coast Guard after combining it with the U.S. Life Saving Service. The Coast Guard has always had a close connection with revenues. It was under the Treasury Department’s jurisdiction until 1967; then it was transferred to the Department of Transportation. 

It was given responsibility for lighthouses by President Roosevelt in 1939.

The Coast Guard’s university, the Coast Guard Academy, was founded in 1876 as the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction. Since 1932, it has been located in New London, Conn. 

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The Coast Guard is the only military branch exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the military from engaging in law enforcement activities. That’s because it is responsible for enforcing many domestic laws; interdicting drug smuggling is only the best-known of these domestic duties.  During peacetime, it is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Nevertheless, the Coast Guard has played an active role in every major military conflict, including Iraq and Afghanistan. It has the broadest portfolio of mission sets, by far, of any military branch. That suite of missions led the Brookings Institution to argue in a 2020 paper (authored by former Coast Guard Capt. Michael Sinclair) that the Coast Guard is better positioned than the Navy to address some global challenges, including Chinese maritime encroachments. The article called the Coast Guard “more Swiss Army Knife than K-Bar,” and said, “Unlike the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force—which each have a single-mission focus—the Coast Guard has a sweeping mission set that includes defense readiness as well as maritime law enforcement, security and governance operations.” 

Among its many missions, the Coast Guard also helps regulate maritime commerce, including the inland waterways, a maritime sector often overlooked by the non-maritime world.  

You would think that more missions would mean more funding. But no. The Coast Guard’s roughly $12 billion budget—less than a single Ford-class carrier—comes through the Homeland Security appropriations committees in Congress rather than the regular defense budget. It is just now beginning to recapitalize its 50-year-old cutter fleet.

Under the Biden administration’s 2022 budget proposals, the Coast Guard’s procurement, construction and improvements accounts would total $1.64 billion, less than the $2.26 billion it received for 2021 and the $1.77 billion it received for 2020.

The Coast Guard has not only a proud past, but a future filled with challenges it alone is positioned to address. If it is not to spread itself too thinly over its many missions, Congress will have to step up with additional funding.