1967 United States Coast Guard Transferred to the Department of Transportation

In his 1966 State of The Union Message, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his intention to seek legislation creating a cabinet-level department that would oversee all federal transportation-related activities. The Coast Guard was to be part of this department. This was strongly opposed by Secretary of the Treasury Henry H. Fowler. The opposition was duly noted but the Secretary was informed that if the Coast Guard remained in the Treasury Department it would lose all functions related to transportation safety.

The Commandant, Admiral Edwin J. Roland, recognized that opposition to the transfer of the Coast Guard to the new department would likely bring about the break-up of the Coast Guard leaving the remnant as a latter day Revenue-Cutter Service. He decided not to oppose the transfer seeking only to assure that the Coast Guard would retain its identity as a military service under the new Department of Transportation (DOT). A group of officers, under the direction of Rear Admiral Mark A. Whalen attended congressional committee hearings and were appointed to the Task Force on the Department of Transportation. Rear Admiral Whalen urged that support be sought from the Department of Defense and the Navy Department, both of which could attest to the value of the Coast Guard’s participation in past military conflicts and most recently in Vietnam. Key senators and congressmen were kept fully informed and timely information releases were made to those sections of the civilian population where support laid. Although the actual transfer of the Coast Guard from the Treasury Department to the Department of Transportation took place under his successor, Admiral Roland deserves much of the credit for the ease with which the transition was made.

The transfer, however, slowed down the implementation of the Aviation Plan as well as Coast Guard wide replacement and upgrade of assets. The Coast Guard attempted to educate the new department on the validity of its roles and missions as well as the interdependence and cross utilization of assets which allowed the Coast Guard to perform its missions so well. Unfortunately, the objectives of the Coast Guard and DOT never coalesced. The primary emphasis of DOT was regulatory oversight of road, rail and air transportation programs, industries and trust funds. The operational qualities and requirements of the Coast Guard were not fully appreciated and Transportation Secretaries were seldom willing or able to expend political capitol on the Coast Guard’s behalf   A little over a decade after transfer the Coast Guard would face a concerted effort from within the Department to de-militarize and privatize it while turning a good number of its functions over to other agencies or commercial concerns. In the early 1980s the Coast Guard was engaged in fighting for its very existence.

In 1967, the year the Coast Guard became part of DOT, it had active duty strength of about 35,000 personnel. At the turn of the century the Coast Guard still had an active duty strength of about 35,000. In the intervening years however, significant events occurred that increased both the complexity and scope of Coast Guard missions.  The Magnusson-Stevens Fisheries Act of 1976 provided the United States with a 200 mile Economic Exclusion Zone and assigned the Coast Guard law enforcement responsibilities for it. Counter Narcotic operations took a dramatic jump and by 1998 consumed 17% of the Coast Guard’s operating budget. Migrant Interdiction increased dramatically with the large Cuban exodus of 1980 which turned into a large scale search and rescue operation. Migrant flows are now countered from multiple directions and countries. The grounding of the tanker EXXON Valdez in Alaska resulted in a flood of oil pollution laws and the bulk of regulatory development and enforcement fell upon the Coast Guard. In a series of speeches and congressional testimony given during 1999 by ADM James W Loy, Commandant of the Coast Guard,  the seriousness of the Coast Guard’s predicament was addressed. ADM Loy ticked off alarming indicators that the Coast Guard wasn’t always ready anymore. Adjusted for inflation the Coast Guard budget actually decreased by 30 percent between 1992 and 1998 and by 2000 it had been forced to cut scheduled operations by 10 percent.

On March 1, 2003 the Coast Guard became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Early indications are that it is a much better fit and will be advantageous to the Coast Guard and the public it serves. Time will tell.