Last January, during the longest government shutdown in American history, the 170 Coast Guardsmen aboard the cutter Bertholf departed Alameda, California, on an assignment to the South China Sea. They did so having not seen a paycheck since before Christmas and without knowing how long they would have to go without one.
All government shutdowns are policy failures. They waste taxpayer dollars and cause financial hardships for millions of federal workers and their families. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the five-week partial shutdown cost the American economy $8 billion in the first quarter. I have cosponsored the End Government Shutdowns Act, which would prevent this senseless situation from happening again. While this legislation works its way through Congress, I urge my fellow members to make sure that what happened to the Coast Guard during the last shutdown does not happen again if another budget impasse should occur.
The Coast Guard was not funded and its members went without pay during the partial shutdown because it operates in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS was one of the agencies that did not receive an appropriation, forcing a partial shutdown. The other four branches of America’s armed forces – the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force – were funded because their resources come from a Department of Defense appropriation. No one – regardless of service branch – who leaves home to defend the United States by serving in our military should be asked to do so without pay. The Coast Guard deserves to be treated as an equal branch of our armed forces.
The Coast Guard’s 48,000 active-duty and reserve members are parts of a long blue line of service dating back to Alexander Hamilton’s purchase of ten ships for the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790. They protect the American people and promote security in a complex and ever-changing world. The Bertholf is just one example of the vital defense work done by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Today’s Coast Guard has unique authorities, capabilities, and partnerships that secure more than 4.5 million square miles of ocean, 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline, and a marine transportation system that collectively supports $5.4 trillion of annual economic activity. This activity supports over 23 million American jobs – many in my home state of Mississippi. On a typical day, 11 Coast Guard cutters, two patrol aircraft, five helicopters, two specialized law enforcement teams, and a Port Security Unit support Pentagon commanders on all seven continents. The Coast Guard lives up to its motto, “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready).
Three months ago I visited Alaska with the Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Charles Ray. We met with some of the Coast Guard men and women hit hardest by the shutdown. My colleague Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told me a story of one Coast Guard family that illustrates what many went through. The husband, a member of the Coast Guard, had been out at sea for months and came back during the shutdown. While he was gone, his family struggled to get by. Instead of returning home joyfully to his wife and one-month old baby, the family members wondered if they could afford to stay in their house any longer. They almost had to abandon the home the husband had been deployed to defend.
This problem is solvable. The “Pay Our Coast Guard” provision in the Senate version of the 2019 Coast Guard Authorization Act is an obvious step. It would mandate that, in the event of another partial shutdown, members of the Coast Guard would be paid by the same legislation that would provide for the other branches of our armed forces. Families of the fallen and retirees would continue to receive their benefits regardless of whether or not Congress is able to resolve partisan differences. This legislation would enshrine parity across the military.
The unequal treatment of the U.S. Coast Guard was a betrayal of our nation’s armed forces. Along with honoring our veterans this November 11th, passage of this simple legislation would show that when Americans say “thank you for your service” we actually mean it.
Roger Wicker represents Mississippi in the United States Senate. He is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
This op-ed originally ran in The Hill.