January 28, 2015

Wednesday, January 28, is the 100th anniversary of President Wilson’s signing of the law that created the Coast Guard (attached, see chapter 20). The way the Coast Guard was formed is illustrative of how much of a mishmash that organization still is. The Coast Guard Act combined two existing services: the Revenue Cutter Service (founded 1797, basically tax collectors with boats and guns to make sure shippers weren’t avoiding tariffs by docking boats and unloading cargo outside designated Customs ports of entry), and the Life-Saving Service (established in 1878 to aid survivors of shipwrecks). Two completely different missions, and if you were to assign these agencies to a budget functional category today, the Revenue Cutter Service would likely fall under “Administration of Justice” (like the Customs Service today, and IRS Enforcement) while the Life-Saving Service would fall under “Transportation.” (But the 1915 Act, like the current law, turned the Coast Guard over to the Navy during “a time of war when the President shall so direct.” The Lighthouse Service, also transportation-oriented, was merged with the Coast guard in 1939.)

Today, the Coast Guard is one of the few government agencies that has budget accounts that are split between budget categories. The Coast Guard is mostly function 400 (Transportation), but its Operating Expenses account is split between transportation and Defense (function 050). One of the biggest ongoing disputes with budget insiders is whether or not to amend the system of assigning all federal spending into categories based on the primary function of the spending at the account level – the categories have not been substantially changed since the mid-1970s, and if you look at the category list now, the first thing that jumps out at you is that “Homeland Security” is not a category. So the functional summary used by the House and Senate Budget Committees inherently tells you nothing at all about trends in Homeland spending. (This is why every year, the Analytical Perspectivesvolume of the President’s budget request includes a “Homeland Security Funding Analysis” showing how much such a functional category would take away from all of the other categories.)

So, Happy Anniversary to the Coast Guard. More information on the two Coast Guard predecessor organizations can be found for the Revenue Cutter Service, here, and for the Life-Saving Service, here.