June 04, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Maloney Statements from Hearing on “Western Hemisphere Drug Interdictions: Why Maintaining Coast Guard Operations Matter”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) during today’s hearing titled: “Western Hemisphere Drug Interdictions: Why Maintaining Coast Guard Operations Matter”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you Chairman Maloney.  I commend you for scheduling this morning’s hearing to shine a bright light on one reason why the Coast Guard is indispensable to our Nation – the Service’s essential role in interdicting illicit drugs at sea.

With all the talk about the Southern Border in the past two years, a person might assume that the border is awash in illegal drugs, among other threats, perceived or real.  That characterization, however, is not the case.

In fact, due to our concerted efforts over the past ten to twelve years to ratchet up security operations along our Southern Border, transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, have adjusted to the higher risks of attempting to run drugs across the border.  Moreover, how have they adapted? They have taken to sea.

Whether through their use of “fast boats”, fishing boats, or even semi-submersible vessels, TCOs are now utilizing the broad expanse of the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone – an area over twice the size of the continental United States – as a preferred route for moving contraband of all types, but especially illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana.

This change in tactics has forced the Coast Guard and other federal agencies and international partners to adapt as well.  I look forward to hearing from our witnesses this morning on how operations continue to evolve in order to keep one-step ahead of the TCOs.

Yet, as much as the Coast Guard can improve its maritime domain awareness to produce actionable intelligence to put “steel on target,” one fact remains. The Coast Guard simply does not have sufficient cutters and other assets to improve substantially its interdiction rate in the Transit Zone. In fact, the Coast Guard only has the capacity to attempt to target, detect, and disrupt 20 percent of known drug movements.

For too long the Coast Guard has been relying on its aged fleet of legacy Medium Endurance Cutters, which become less reliable, more expensive to repair and maintain, and worse, provide fewer days at sea.

Perhaps belatedly, at least the Coast Guard and the administration have now come to the realization that a service life extension program (SLEP) for these cutters is way past due, and the Service has at least worked that into their budget request.  I will definitely want to hear from Admiral Abel on the status of this critical initiative.

I am also reminded that even with its deficiency in cutters, and even considering the vastness of the Transit Zone, the Coast Guard still interdicts at sea more illegal drugs than all other agencies combined interdict at land crossings, seizing more than $6.6 billion in drugs in Fiscal Year 2017 alone.  That fact is remarkable.

It also demonstrates, again, why it was deplorable for the Coast Guard to go unpaid during the recent Federal Government shutdown.

To their credit, and as testament to their commitment to serve our Nation, the men and women of the Coast Guard continued to undertake this hazardous, if not downright dangerous, mission, all to protect the health, safety and security of the American people, even while not getting paid.

So this morning, as we delve into better understanding the scope and complexity of maritime drug interdiction, I hope we all keep in mind how important our Coast Guard is to that initiative, and the importance of our obligation to ensure that the Coast Guard never again is forced to operate without a paycheck.  Thank you.  

Statement as delivered can be found here.

Chair Maloney:

Welcome to this morning’s hearing. Today, we’re here to learn more about one of the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions, drug interdiction in the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone.

Every day, members of our Coast Guard coordinate and execute this critical mission to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the Unites States. Through partnerships with other federal agencies and international allies our Coasties interrupt and intercept drug cartel operations, interdicting more cocaine than all other federal agencies combined.

Notwithstanding its performance, the Coast Guard remains under-resourced and is asked to do more with less, and regrettably, their work in drug interdiction is no different.

For example, the Service’s aged fleet of legacy cutters can only muster an interdiction rate of roughly 6% of known illegal drug movements (due to unexpected maintenance). If the Coast Guard had a recapitalized fleet of new offshore cutters on-hand, however, they could interdict 20% to 30% of known drug movement in the Transit Zone.

Unless we are happy to sustain this mediocre interdiction rate, it remains imperative that this committee and the Congress continue to support funding increases to recapitalize Coast Guard fleets of surface and air assets.

If anything, our hearing last month on the Coast Guard’s budget request and acquisition activities further corroborates my belief that the Coast Guard is going to be extremely hard pressed to maintain its existing capabilities, much less increase their operational readiness to police a transit zone that is twice the size of the continental United States.

Moreover, while the sheer size of the Transit Zone is a daunting enough challenge, the Department of Homeland Security continues to disproportionately reallocate and siphon resources from the Coast Guard and other agencies to reinforce operations at the Southern Border.

In the face of data demonstrating that the maritime environment is increasingly the preferred route for Transnational Criminal Organizations to operate, it makes absolutely no sense for the Administration to divert critical resources from an already overburdened Coast Guard in the face of a genuine, documented threat to the security and safety of the American people.

We might ask: How can we reasonably expect the Coast Guard and other Federal agencies, for that matter, to accomplish their vital missions in this context? How can we demand the only military service left unpaid during the recent government shutdown, to be asked, once again, to do more with less?

If we want to succeed in our efforts to prevent illegal drugs from entering our country, we can no longer ignore the fact: inadequate Coast Guard budgets have left the Service out to dry with crumbling shoreside infrastructure, aged or obsolete surface and air assets, and other glaring operational needs.

Until we have resolved the issue of this reality in full, we are far more likely to see more illicit drugs and other harmful contraband crossing our shores, not less – a truly ironic outcome that would be devastating to both the Coast Guard and to our country.

Statement as delivered can be found here.