NJ lawmaker fears cuts to Coast Guard aid will undermine drug war

By RICHARD DEGENER | The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J. | Published: March 4, 2014

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. — A proposal by the Obama administration to slash military spending for the U.S. Army has raised concerns about plans for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Department of Defense budget would reduce Army spending to pre-World War II levels. The Coast Guard is not under defense, it is under the Department of Homeland Security. There have been no announcements yet about its proposed budget, due to be disclosed this week.

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who sits on a House subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard, remains concerned in light of the announcement about the Army and battles fought last year when Coast Guard funding was cut by the administration.

"We're not hearing very much, but I am very concerned about how the president has dealt with the Coast Guard the last several years. It's either a lack of understanding or a callous disregard for what they do," LoBiondo said. "The U.S. Coast Guard has many missions it has been asked to do. It continues to try and do them all with less, and something's got to give."

Last year, LoBiondo said, it took a strong bipartisan effort to restore cuts to the Coast Guard. There still were impacts due to the government shutdown and sequestration battles.

One of the biggest impacts was on the high-seas war against drug trafficking, which is carried out by the Coast Guard's larger cutters, including two, Dependable and Vigorous, based in Cape May.

The cutters deploy into the Caribbean, sometimes with help from the U.S. Navy (since stopped by the administration) and have been a key component in battling drug trafficking at sea.

Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, in a recent speech, said federal cuts reduced operating costs 25 percent and drug interdictions 30 percent last year.

Papp said this reduced the seizures of marijuana from 124,000 pounds in 2012 to 81,000 pounds in 2013. Cocaine seizures dropped by 40,000 pounds to 194,000 pounds seized last year.

Exact figures were not available from the Cape May base, but the spokesman there, Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, said any cut in funding reduces operating hours on the water.

Still, he noted, the Vigorous returned from a deployment in November with a haul of cocaine worth $40 million. Like LoBiondo, the base is awaiting this week's release of the president's budget.

With a bipartisan agreement by Congress to put off any new sequestration for two years, the main worry is proposed cuts from the administration.

"The president's budget is the first order of concern right now," LoBiondo said. "The president makes a recommendation in the form of a budget. If he reduces it substantially or zeroes it out, it's a much heavier lift to restore dollars. Last year, he offered major cuts to the Coast Guard, but they were restored with a bipartisan effort. His track record and his understanding of what the Coast Guard is trying to do is not good."



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