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Coast Guard to Congress: Don't Move Us to Pentagon

 Coastguardsmen with captured contraband at Coast Guard Base Miami Beach in April 2013.(US Coast Guard photo/Sabrina Laberdesque)
Coastguardsmen with captured contraband at Coast Guard Base Miami Beach in April 2013.(US Coast Guard photo/Sabrina Laberdesque)

The U.S. Coast Guard is happy to be part of the Homeland Security Department and doesn't see a need to reorganize under the Defense Department, an official said.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft has said "the best place for us is the Department of Homeland Security and I agree with him," Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel said on Friday at the annual Military Reporters and Editors conference in Arlington, Va., outside Washington, D.C.

The service is the smallest branch of the U.S. armed forces and the only one that falls under the Homeland Security Department rather than the Pentagon -- an organizational structure recently questioned by a lawmaker.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure's Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, recently supported such a change to better shield the service from potential spending reductions.A Republican from California, Hunter is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"First and foremost, the Coast Guard is a military force," he wrote in a March 17 letter to President Donald Trump. "It deserves to be housed in a department that recognizes the importance of its mission, and has the capabilities to properly advocate for greatly needed resources. And the Coast Guard's mission set, acquisition needs and national security role provide a strong case that our country would be best served by housing the Coast Guard at DoD."

Hunter also wrote that over time, "the Coast Guard's mission importance has not been properly recognized or advocated for -- as demonstrated by years of underfunded budget requests, and perhaps most clearly, by this year's grossly inadequate proposed Office of Management and Budget (OMB) funding guidance."

The lawmaker, who is under investigation by the Justice Department for using campaign funds on personal expenses, was referring to the OMB proposal to cut $1.3 billion from the Coast Guard's roughly $10 billion annual budget as part of the fiscal 2018 federal budget request. The decision was reversed after an outcry from naval and maritime advocates.

"There was only one skinny budget that was delivered to [Capitol] Hill and when you look at that, that's a sustainment budget for the Coast Guard," Michel said. "That's something we can work with and that's what we're marching forward on."

As for the organizational change, the vice commandant said the issue is a perennial one that has been debated for decades -- going back to when the Coast Guard was part of the Treasury Department from 1790 to 1967.

"The Department of Homeland Security is a Tier 1 department," he said. "Most of the Coast Guard missions fit very comfortably within the Department of Homeland Security and our secretary has, as evidenced by this skinny budget that was ultimately delivered to the Hill, is a great advocate for us and we're very happy."

Michel said the Coast Guard works "extremely well" with other parts of the department, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he said.

He added, "I think it's the right fit, the commandant said it's the right fit and I'm pretty sure that's the way we're going to respond to Mr. Hunter, too."

Yet even the commandant has issued reminders that the service is a branch of the military.

"The Coast Guard is an armed service," Zukunft said during his March 16 "State of the Coast Guard" address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"Yet we are not postured to benefit from vital national security investments because our funding is classified incorrectly," he said. "Our men and women are military members who operate on the front lines to secure our nation and our borders. Our service must be categorized and funded accordingly."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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