WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly late Wednesday to approve a policy bill for the Coast Guard, 413-3. The bill now moves to the Senate where, as of late Thursday, it has yet to be scheduled for floor action. Legislators remain hopeful, however, that the upper house will vote on the bill before it closes out this year's session.
The House bill, formally dubbed the Howard Coble Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014, is also known as the Coast Guard Reauthorization Bill.
Funding for the Coast Guard is included as part of the much larger Department of Homeland Security budget request. But Congress, in an effort to give the service some specific attention, crafts an annual policy bill to address specific service issues.
The bill seeks to restore the Coast Guard budget to 2014 levels, reversing $800 million in cuts in the Obama administration's budget request. The House approved an $8.7 billion budget — the same as last year — while the administration requested $7.9 billion, plus another $220 million in supplemental funding.
The House also supports military pay raises for the Coast Guard at the same levels as the other armed services.
The bill directs the Coast Guard to submit a mission need statement (MNS) covering all its major acquisition programs each year from 2016 to 2019, and every four years thereafter. The MNS would not include force structure figures, but would include cost figures under an updated capital needs investment plan.
Hill sources indicated the current investment plan was last updated in 2005.
The MNS would also identify gaps between mission hour needs and projected mission hour expectations, and describe which missions those gaps would prevent the service from achieving.
The bill also seeks to bring the Coast Guard in line with the other armed services by submitting to Congress an annual authorization request.
"The focus would be on end strength," said one congressional source. "The Coast Guard has failed miserably to get its legislative packages up to us in a regular manner."
The bill grants multiyear procurement authority to buy new Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs), the largest Coast Guard acquisition planned in the coming decade. The service is expected to choose one contractor in 2016 to build up to 25 OPCs, which will replace two classes of medium endurance cutters (MECs).
New OPCs, however, aren't expected to begin deploying until the mid-to-late 2020s, and Congress wants a plan for how the service will keep and maintain the existing fleet of MECs until they can be replaced. The report would also include how many OPCs are necessary to continue the service's historical capability in sea state 5, described by the Beaufort scale as moderate waves of some length — six to nine feet — with many whitecaps.
Another provision in the bill would prevent the Coast Guard from providing North Atlantic iceberg information to foreign-flagged vessels who don't pay for the service. The provision is aimed at third party, flag-of-convenience registrations such as Panama or Liberia who don't reimburse the Coast Guard for the costs of the iceberg warning effort.
"The Coast Guard has spent more than $40 million over the last five years providing this service to foreign flagged vessels," the bill notes. Such payments are required by signatories to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.
With the small fleet of icebreakers sorely in need of replacement, the bill requires the Coast Guard to analyze "the cost effectiveness of acquiring or leasing new icebreaker assets," and prohibits the service from spending for capabilities on a new icebreaker if those capabilities are requested by another federal agency. The Coast Guard would be authorized, however, to accept transfers of funds from those agencies.