As Coast Guard Members Bear Brunt of Shutdown, Agency and Congress Seek Way Out

January 24, 2019

Tens of thousands of members of the U.S. Coast Guard continue to go without pay while the partial government shutdown drags on, with 8,000 civilian workers missing their second paycheck Friday and 42,000 active-duty service members set to miss theirs if the shutdown moves into February.

The shutdown, which began when appropriations for several departments ran out on Dec. 22, represents the first time since 1877 that a branch of the Armed Forces has gone without pay. (In 1877, Army officers and enlistees went unpaid for five months due to a lapse in appropriations over disagreement between Southern Democrats who wanted to cut the Army in the aftermath of Reconstruction, and Texas representatives who wanted more troops to help with ongoing problems with the Apaches along the Mexican border.)

Additionally, the Coast Guard announced this week that it will be unable to pay retired servicemembers their benefits on Feb. 1 if the shutdown lasts until then: unlike other federal agencies which use trust funds to pay its retired employees, the Coast Guard uses pay-as-you-go appropriations to fund military retiree payments. (This will not affect the Coast Guard’s civilian retirees, as they receive their retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management’s trust fund.)

Regardless of the lapse in funding, the Coast Guard is still operating, fulfilling their border security and coastal operations missions but not maritime commerce or recreational boating activities.

The Coast Guard is the only branch of the Armed Forces affected by the shutdown in this way: the other branches are housed in the Department of Defense (DOD), and Congress passed fiscal year 2019 DOD appropriations last summer.

But the Coast Guard is housed in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That makes funding the Coast Guard particularly challenging in this political environment, as the main sticking point in negotiations to reopen the government is over President Trump’s request for over $5 billion for a border wall as part of the DHS budget. (Earlier this month, the House voted to reopen the government while funding DHS for just one month, in an attempt to buy time for negotiations over border spending to continue. The Senate did not consider it.)

These impacts are not lost on Congress: earlier this month Sen. John Thune (R-ND) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) each introduced legislation(S 21 andHR 367) to provide continuing appropriations to the Coast Guard in the future when interim or full-year appropriations are not in effect. The bill addresses pay for both current workers (service members, civilian employees, and contractors) and retirees, as well as payment of death gratuity, funeral travel, and temporary continuation of basic housing allowance for dependents of members who die on active duty.

No action has been taken in either chamber, but the bills have 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 133 in the House, respectively.

In the meantime, the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (CCMA) Board announced it will offer increased interest-free loans to junior employees and junior enlisted service members, in an effort to help those who are having trouble making ends meet because they are not getting paid. CCMA also received a $15 million donation from USAA to support those in need, to be distributed by the American Red Cross Hero Care Center.

Communities across the country are also coming together to support Coast Guard families, from peanut butter giveaways to donation drives for foods and other goods, to bakery discounts and free haircuts.

(This is strikingly similar to when the Army went unpaid in 1877: according to D.M. Giangreco in United States Army: The Definitive Illustrated History, “a lucky few [Army officers] received assistance [from] the Louisiana National Bank which offered loans without interest to Army officers, and Americans pitched in to help in whatever way they could. For example, some hotels like the Occidental in San Francisco let it be known that they would present no bills to officers in transit.”)

Admiral Karl L. Schultz, Commandant of the Coast Guard, expressed in an official statement appreciation for these and other support efforts.

“I am grateful for the outpouring of support across the country, particularly in local communities, for our men and women,” Admiral Schultz said. “It is a direct reflection of the American public’s sentiment towards their United States Coast Guard; they recognize the sacrifice that you and your family make in service to your country.”

Separately, in a video posted to Twitter, he made it clear he is not happy that Coast Guard families have been put in this position in the first place.

“I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members,” he said. He and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will be “taking to Capitol Hill” to describe the shutdown’s impacts on Coast Guard members.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) used to be chairman of the House Coast Guard Subcommittee the last time the Democrats controlled the House, and he is now chairman of the full Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has scheduled a hearing on the shutdown’s impact on the Coast Guard for January 31.

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