By Jeremy Herb and Bryan Bender
March 7, 2017
The Trump administration wants to gut the Coast Guard and make deep cuts in airport and rail security to help pay for its crackdown on illegal immigration, according to internal budget documents reviewed by POLITICO — a move that lawmakers and security experts say defies logic if the White House is serious about defending against terrorism and keeping out undocumented foreigners.
The Office of Management and Budget is seeking a 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard's $9.1 billion budget, the draft documents show, even as it proposes major increases to other Department of Homeland Security agencies to hire more border agents and immigration officers and construct a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The budget numbers mark the most detailed breakdown yet about how President Donald Trump envisions restructuring DHS to meet his pledge to halt illegal immigration and deport some of the millions already here.
Overall, DHS would get a 6 percent boost to its budget, to $43.8 billion. But to help pay for that, the administration would slice the budget of the Coast Guard and cut 11 percent in spending from the TSA — reductions that critics say would weaken safeguards against threats arriving by sea or air.
OMB also wants to cut 11 percent from the budget of FEMA, which oversees the national response to disasters such as floods and hurricanes.
The budget gambit is sure to meet fierce opposition at the hardest-hit agencies and on Capitol Hill, where a leading Republican is accusing White House budget officials of living in "la-la land."
“It is ignorant of what constitutes national security," said retired Adm. James Loy, a former Coast Guard commandant who served as deputy homeland security secretary and TSA administrator under President George W. Bush. "They simply don’t understand the equation.”
Loy and others argue that hiring more border agents and building a wall are likely to increase the need for guarding ports and coastlines. And they contend that the Coast Guard, which intercepted more than 6,000 illegal migrants in 2016, is already overtaxed in interdicting illegal drugs and people from Central and South America while defending ports of entry from terrorist attack. Under its current budget, they say, it can’t afford to buy the new helicopters and ships it needs.
"As you harden the land border you open up the maritime border," argued Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander who is director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. "It makes no sense. You are going to have this balloon effect."
The budget numbers POLITICO reviewed are an opening salvo, and agencies are allowed to file an appeal. Congress will ultimately have its say on whether to approve Trump's full federal budget request when it is submitted later in the spring.
"It would be premature for us to comment on — or anyone to report — the specifics of this internal discussion before its publication," said OMB spokesman John Czwartacki, adding that the broad outline of the budget will be released in mid-March.
A DHS spokesman also said the agency could not comment on the budget deliberations.
But the White House's priorities are clearly reflected in the figures shared with agencies last week.
The plan calls for an extra $3 billion for Customs and Border Protection and $2.1 billion more for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That includes a $1.4 billion boost to help pay for the proposed border wall.
In addition, it includes $560 million for "high-priority replacement fence projects," $920 million for fixed and mobile surveillance technology and a $1.9 billion increase to pay for additional detention beds and transportation costs for deportations.
It also includes an additional $100 million for the first 10 percent of the 5,000 CBP border agents that Trump has promised to hire, and $185 million for the first 10 percent of Trump's proposed 10,000 new ICE officers.
But the Coast Guard would bear the brunt, seeing its budget cut by $1.3 billion, to $7.8 billion.
Most of the cuts would hit funding for new equipment, which would fall by 65 percent to $670 million under the proposed budget plan. The proposal would save $500 million by canceling the contract for a new national security cutter, and it also proposes delaying acquisition of the C-27J Medium Range Surveillance Aircraft for one year.
The cuts would come at a time when the nation's primary maritime security force — which includes nearly 41,000 active-duty personnel, 7,000 reservists and more than 8,500 civilians — is busier than ever, conducting missions as broad as search and rescue, port security, drug interdiction and cybersecurity.
For example, in fiscal 2016, the Coast Guard intercepted 6,346 undocumented migrants, patrolled 3.4 million square nautical miles and removed 201 metric tons of cocaine and 52,613 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $5.9 billion, spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett said. It also responded to 35 oil and 17 hazardous substance incidents, analyzed and investigated more than 13,000 and 1,800 cyber events, respectively, and conducted 139 airborne intercept missions over the Washington area at the request of the Department of Defense.
In addition, the demand for Coast Guard assets to train Central American forces in interdiction efforts has increased 320 percent this year, Midgett said.
Midgett declined to comment on the potential cuts because deliberations were ongoing.
But Coast Guard leaders say resources are being strained.
"Our intelligence is extremely good on the movement of drugs," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said in a recent interview with POLITICO, before the proposed cuts were revealed. "And where we’re really challenged is we just don’t have enough resources — enough ships, planes — to target all the events. So on the best of days we could probably target maybe three out of the 10 known events."
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are preparing to fight further cuts — and those include Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, where the Coast Guard's cutters are built.
"Chairman Cochran appreciates the Coast Guard’s important role in protecting our national security interests," his office said in a statement. "Any proposals to reduce support for the Coast Guard will receive careful scrutiny in Congress.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who chairs the Transportation Coast Guard Subcommittee, was more blunt in an interview.
"The OMB treats the Coast Guard like a lunch fund to fund their other priorities within the Department of Homeland Security," he told POLITICO. "Congress funds [through appropriations], and we’re not doing what they're doing. They’re off in la-la-land. If they want to be irrelevant they’re off to a good start."
Coast Guard veterans and homeland security specialists also said the funding plan for DHS makes little sense given Trump's stated goals of defending the homeland from terrorism and stemming the flow of illegal immigration.
"When you look at the drug interdiction and you look at flows of population, the Coast Guard plays a critical role," said Katherine Kidder, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security. "It is a very land-border specific strategy looking at the wall, and it's missing the forest from the trees that actually the coast defense is just as important for interdicting those flows."
Loy, who is now a consultant at the The Cohen Group, said the cut to the Coast Guard would probably affect the agency "across the board in all its missions, including cutting back aircraft hours and cutter days at sea."
"Should it stand it would be devastating for the organization," he said.
In light of the Trump administration's plans to boost the military budget, he added, the Coast Guard "should be in the plus up instead of the cut back."
"It is failing to come to grips with the simple reality that the Coast Guard is one of the military services of this country," he added of the new administration.
The Coast Guard is funded under DHS, which is part of the domestic discretionary budget that OMB proposes cutting by $54 billion to pay for the military increase. And other DHS agencies would also get substantially scaled back in the proposal.
FEMA sees a $370 million cut, which includes a 25 percent reduction, or $280 million, in the agency's program for countering violent extremism and preparations for a wide-scale terrorist attack, as well as a 40 percent cut of $80 million for FEMA's port transit security grant program.
At TSA, the $500 million reduction includes cutting $65 million for behavioral detection officers and $55 million for local law enforcement grants to to airports. On the other hand, it proposes a $1 increase to the TSA security fee in fiscal 2018 to generate an extra $470 million in revenue.
Loy, who also served as administrator of the TSA when it was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said the proposed 11 percent cut to the agency would cause disarray.
"This would be a terrible black eye, having gotten the agency well along the path of something they can be proud of," he said. "Now they would have to figure out how to do their job with significantly less resources."
"This is the amazing reality," he added, "despite the fact that the bad guys have a love affair with commercial aviation as a target."
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