Senate panel boosts Coast Guard acquisition effort

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted Thursday to boost Coast Guard spending to $7 billion next year, with a sizeable percentage of the increase going to the Deepwater acquisition program.

The committee authorized $702 million for Deepwater in fiscal 2004, the same amount appropriated by the Senate last week. That's enough money to put the underfunded fleet modernization program back on track, says bill sponsor Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. However, the House has appropriated $530 million for Deepwater, and the administration requested just $500 million.

The bipartisan bill (S. 733) also authorizes $70 million to analyze port security plans. Another $134 million will go to Rescue 21, the Coast Guard's effort to modernize its system to receive and respond to distress calls from boats and ships.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2003 passed on a voice vote. The committee also quickly approved a substitute amendment for the original bill after a brief introduction by Snowe.

Snowe said the bill represents a 15 percent increase over last year's authorization. She said the Coast Guard needs enough money to carry out its traditional missions-including search and rescue and fisheries law enforcement-in addition to its homeland security duties.

An analysis by the General Accounting Office shows fisheries enforcement has declined 38 percent since 1998 and drug interdictions 60 percent.

The bill authorizes Coast Guard funding and personnel for two years. However, there were no numbers in the legislation for fiscal 2005. Snowe said she would work with other senators and the administration to come up with specific numbers before taking the bill to the floor.

In fiscal 2005, Snowe hopes to begin accelerating the Deepwater program, the $17 billion plan to build new ships and planes. Completing the program in 10 years instead of 20 could save $4 billion, according to a Coast Guard feasibility report.

In June, the House Transportation and Infrastructure also authorized more than $7 billion for the Coast Guard, including $702 million for Deepwater. The legislation (H.R. 2443) has not yet gone to the full House.

The bill approved Thursday authorizes a Coast Guard strength of 45,500 active duty military personnel, no change from the current authorization. However, it would authorize 900 more officers, for a total of 7,100.

Several provisions are aimed at recruiting and retaining personnel. They would give bonuses of up to $20,000 for training in a critical skill, allow enlistments that are not for full years, and expand the Coast Guard's authority to ease housing shortages.

The bill would also:

  • Authorize $36 million for three additional marine safety and security teams.
  • Authorize $40 million for the automatic identification system.
  • Eliminate the need to fire a warning shot before using disabling fire, when use of a warning shot is not practical or safe.
  • Change the mandatory retirement age for Coast Guard officers from 62 to 60, bringing the retirement age in line with other services.
  • Ensure that foreign vessels carrying U.S. passengers meet the same safety standards as U.S. vessels.
  • Convey three decommissioned Coast Guard cutters to local nonprofit groups in Port Huron, Mich., Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Duluth, Minn.
  • Name a cove in Alaska for Eric Steiner Koss, a crew member on a NOAA ship who died last year when the small launch he was piloting in Prince William Sound capsized.
  • Amend the National Historic Preservation Act to ensure that lighthouses conveyed to nonprofit groups in the past remain protected. The bill directs the Secretary of the Interior to review the sale or transfer of lighthouses to ensure that the new owners comply with the original conveyances.
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