01 July 2005

Vernal Pools Cost More than the Coast Guard

As a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard, I try to keep an eye on what's going on $$$-wise. As usual, the CG is battling for scraps.
Lawmakers this week torpedoed the Coast Guard's revised modernization plan and criticized the agency's chief for supplying information late, and embracing a budget proposal that does not provide enough money to expand his fleet. The president's 2006 budget proposal only provides a marginal funding increase for the Coast Guard, even though the agency's security responsibilities significantly increased to include greater emphasis on ports, waterways, and coastal security after Sept. 11, Republican and Democrat members of congress said at a series of hearings this week. The Deepwater program, an 8-year-old plan to modernize the Coast Guard's naval fleet, which ranks third oldest in the world, originally sought $966 million from Congress for 2006, with support from both the President and the Office of Management and Budget. But in mid-May, the House cut that figure by $466 million because the Guard had not kept congress sufficiently informed about the program's plans and progress.
$966 million? That is only $4 million less than the economic losses associated with the vernal pool critical habitat proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Let's see, human lives or fairy shrimp? Human lives or slender orcutt grass? Port Security or California tiger salamanders?
Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Thomas Collins, who has said that the proposed cuts would cripple the Deepwater program, defended a revised implementation plan before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, but left the hearing with his tail tucked between his legs.
His tail is tucked until CG Station Washington, D.C. receives a mayday call from Harry Reid (D-NV).
"While the revised plan does meet the spirit of what we require," said Congressman and Subcommittee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., it "includes four different funding scenarios ranging in cost from $19 to $24 billion and from 20-25 years, each including a different acquisition schedule and mix of assets," or vessels, he said. It is not Congresses' job to choose which plan is best, "we only dispose of things, you propose," he told the Admiral. Rogers also stressed that Congress cannot appropriate in ranges. "We need to know how much you want and what you want to do with it. That is not a difficult chore," he said.

The Chairman also critiqued the plan for failing to highlight how to best address post Sept. 11 threats and what to do with the Guard's aging cutters -- or large boats -- and aircraft, which increasingly experience costly and life-threatening mechanical failures. The revised plan also fails to immediately address the approaching void in patrol boats, which are dropping out of service due to hull breaches, Rogers said. Other Congressmen on the Committee were less gentle. "I've never seen such a conglomeration of mumbo jumbo in all my life," Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark, said of the report, while Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, said he didn't think it was "worth the paper it's written on." Collins insisted that "there was no attempt to be ambiguous," and defended the Coast Guard's plan, saying that 20 years is a long time to plan ahead and that the agency had wanted to give Congress more flexibility at a time when money is short. "The funding flow is uncertain from the Administration's perspective," Collins said, and "there was an inability with any degree of certainty to predict the cash flow."

He added that, "before we revised this we did not receive the President's request for Deepwater."

Collins did push for the most expensive of the four plans however.

"My personal thought is that the default setting is the $24 billion in the upper range," he said.

Rep. Jerry Lewis R-Calif., who is chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, made a surprise appearance at the hearing in what appeared to be the role of the bad cop. "These are difficult budget times and the appropriations pressure on all of our subcommittees is not to be taken lightly," he said, "but I wanted to send a message to those people who are behind you Admiral."

"Disconcerted" by comments made by members of the subcommittee regarding the Coast Guard's lagging reports, Lewis warned Collins that, "it is not like other people wouldn't like to do your job for you."

The Coast Guard has until July 14 to provide a definite plan on Deepwater, which the subcommittee will discuss on July 21. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Fisheries and the Coast Guard, also lashed out at the Coast Guard's revised plan at a hearing last week, saying that everything seemed to have changed since Sept. 11 except the Coast Guard. The new plan "shockingly, says it actually needs fewer ships, planes, and helicopters than before Sept. 11," Snowe said, noting that the Coast Guard's original proposal had sought to enlarge its fleet.

"That violation of common sense is at the crux of today's hearing."

Snowe said technological improvements to the fleet are important, but are no substitute for "actual, on-the-water presence." She also criticized Collins for embracing the President's 2006 budget proposal. However often Collins affirmed that "his men and women can get by" with what the Administration has requested, she said, "the cold hard truth remains that the Coast Guard is experiencing a record number of casualties and mishaps."

Collins responded to these critiques saying that the revised plan is "goal driven," and "performance based" and should be judged by its results and not its form. He cited record levels of cocaine interdiction last year as a sign that of improvements in communications made by the Deepwater program. Snowe also said she was disturbed by the "total absence of the word acceleration" in the Coast Guard's revised plan. Shortening the time-frame for acquiring Deepwater assets to perhaps a 10 or 15 year timeline would offer cost savings of up to $4 billion over the life of the program she said, and would protect the American people sooner rather than later.

A Government Accountability Office report of preliminary observations on Deepwater released at the hearing found that the Coast Guard needs to better prioritize its modernization plan, and hedge against gaps which will emerge as certain assets are replaced or upgraded. The report also warns that schedule slippages in replacements and upgrades which have occurred already are signs that the Guard's acquisition approach needs close monitoring. The office's Director of Homeland Security and Justice Marget Wrightson, presented the report to the subcommittee and said that the Coast Guard had not implemented recommendations made by the Government Accountability Office over a year ago.

Despite the expanded tasks given to the Coast Guard, Collins said that his biggest challenge was to keep the Deepwater program "from sinking."

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