Washington — With two colleagues, Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters led a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 23 senators urging the Trump administration not to slash the budget of the U.S. Coast Guard by 12 percent, or $1.3 billion.
President Donald Trump is expected to send his first proposed budget to Congress on Thursday, including the reported Coast Guard cuts and a 97 percent reduction in the $300 million a year in the initiative to clean up the Great Lakes.
The senators, 20 Democrats and three Republicans, stressed the role Coast Guard plays in protecting the nation’s borders, conducting counter-terrorism and other patrols, last year seizing a record-breaking 416,000 pounds of illegal drugs worth more than $5 billion.
In Michigan, the Guard operates a fleet of six ice cutters to ensure the movement of vessels on the Great Lakes and three air stations, as well as conducting search and rescue missions and directing boat traffic on the lakes.
“We are concerned that the Coast Guard would not be able to maintain maritime presence, respond to individual and national emergencies, and protect our nation’s economic and environmental interests. The proposed reduction … of 11.8 percent would directly contradict the priorities articulated by the Trump administration,” particularly Trump’s desire to invest in the military, wrote the senators, including Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat.
“We urge you to restore the $1.3 billion cut to the Coast Guard budget, which we firmly believe would result in catastrophic negative impacts to the Coast Guard and its critical role in protecting our homeland, our economy and our environment.”
The senators, in the letter to Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney, underscored that the Guard’s budget has declined steadily for seven years with, for instance, its acquisition budget falling more than 40 percent from 2010 to 2015 and its fleet of cutters and patrol boats “aging at an unsustainable rate with little prospect of replacement.”
The cuts could jeopardize progress toward securing funding to build a new heavy ice breaker for the Great Lakes authorized by Congress in 2015.
The senators also warned against a plan to decommission two specialized counterterrorism Coast Guard teams focused on maritime security, saying the move would reduce the Guard’s ability to conduct port security and other maritime infrastructure protection operations.
Peters, the new ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, said the proposed cuts are counter-intuitive to Trump’s focus on securing the nation’s borders.
“The reason for these cuts is to build a wall on the Southern border, and Donald Trump has failed to get the Mexican government to pay for it, as he promised the American people,” Peters said in an interview.
“He can’t deliver on that promise, so now he’s expecting the American taxpayers to pay for it, and in the process we’re going to cut an important agency that’s responsible for protecting our borders across the country. We have more maritime borders than we have land borders, and the Coast Guard is critical for that.”
Peters also stressed the importance of the Coast Guard’s role in patrolling Arctic waters, which are seeing more international commercial activity, including by Russian vessels.
“Right now, the leading force in the Arctic is the Russians – they have the ice breakers and a very large presence. And the only folks that counter the Russians are the United States Coast Guard,” Peters said. “I don’t know why he wants to let the Russians basically dominate the Arctic but, if that’s what he wants to do, the best way to do it is to cut the Coast Guard budget.”