Coast Guard: Proposed budget cuts would jeopardize mission

Appropriations Committee halves budget request for Deepwater and seeks detailed account on how plan would be funded over 20 years.

Coast Guard planners were thrown off course Wednesday by a House Appropriations Committee move to halve the agency's fiscal 2006 budget request for its long-term modernization program, known as Deepwater.

The Bush administration requested $966 million for Deepwater in 2006. During a budget markup session Wednesday afternoon, House appropriators, led by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations Committee's Homeland Security Subcommittee, cut $466 million from the program and pledged to withhold $50 million until the Coast Guard provides the panel with a detailed account of how the plan would be funded over the next 20 years.

Since January, the Coast Guard has provided reports to Congress outlining the agency's homeland security modernization requirements, its asset acquisition plans with timelines and cost estimates through 2010, and cost estimates for the maintenance of legacy assets. What the agency, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, has not done is provide Congress with a detailed plan that projects costs over the entire life of the program.

Rogers' spokeswoman, Leslie Cupp, said Congress repeatedly has asked the Coast Guard for a 20-year capital acquisition strategy. In March, the Coast Guard provided a revised implementation plan for Deepwater, which included cost projections over the next five years, but that plan was derided as inadequate by members of both the House and Senate. "That was basically a preliminary report," Cupp said.

In the Senate, key members have called for accelerating the Deepwater program to complete modernization in 10 years--as opposed to 25 years, which is projected in the revised implementation plan--something that would be impossible under the administration's current budget plans. The House cuts, if they stand, would further hamper modernization.

In a statement, Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Thomas Collins said, "To say the Coast Guard is disappointed in the subcommittee's cut of the president's funding request for Deepwater would be a gross understatement. The Deepwater program is a cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard's ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the national homeland security strategy."

Collins pledged to "work very closely with the administration and Congress" to obtain full funding.

The Coast Guard's spending plan for 2006 includes continued funding for a number of programs already under way, including $133 million to upgrade engines on the HH-65 helicopter fleet, $368 million to finish building the first national security cutter and begin building a second, and $38 million to sustain existing 210-foot and 270-foot cutters. It's not clear how funding cuts would affect those programs.

"We really do hope we can find a way to resolve all this," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet, "so we can equip our people as best we can to protect our country."