Less is more

How to shrink government without losing its essential functions

Issue: "Follow the Greenback Road," Jan. 25, 1997

All our cynicism notwithstanding, something good can come from the federal government. Just as WORLD has made it a point from time to time to provide encouraging word about the positive accomplishments of God's people in various private endeavors, maybe we should do it too when we see some small department of government doing its job extraordinarily well.

That was the impression I got while visiting the San Diego base of the U. S. Coast Guard last week. Obviously, I can't vouch for the whole service. But I did get a bird's-eye view of a day's operation of this sometimes underreported arm of government--a view enhanced by the opportunity to ride with a helicopter crew putting in some training time to keep their operational skills sharp. We swung over San Diego's famous bay, out around Point Loma, and then headed 30 miles up the magnificent coastline. Just as we passed the nuclear power plant at Carlsbad, we headed inland toward Escondido, and then traced the busy freeways back down to the base.

The weather that morning, quite untypically for San Diego, was not pretty. Hard rain had fallen for several days, and wherever we looked down to see streams and rivers emptying themselves into the Pacific, millions of gallons of creamy mud spewed out half a mile or more into the bright blue of the ocean.

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The huge black clouds still rolling in over the coastline reminded me how quickly bad weather can turn a fun outing on the ocean, or a morning's fishing mission, into a dark and terrifying experience. A dozen people a day, every day of every year, are plucked from such danger by the Coast Guard--often reeled up to safety with equipment just like that on the enormously powerful twin-jet Sikorsky HH60 I was getting ready to board. The rain splattering in my face didn't quite make for a perilous situation--but it did prompt me to pay closer attention to the routine safety instructions. My Mae West life preserver, complete with a personal set of flares and a container of shark repellent, reminded me this wasn't the same as strapping myself into a little car at an amusement park. These folks were dealing with life-and-death realities.

Up and down both oceanic coasts (including Alaska), along the Gulf of Mexico from Key West to Brownsville, Texas, all around Hawaii, and along the length of every major navigable river in the U.S., the Coast Guard's 36,000 regulars (and 8,000 reservists) train to be ready when someone needs help. Every day of every year, there are people who need--and get--that help.

But while that's the Coast Guard's historically most dramatic role, drug interdiction now also consumes big chunks of the service's energies. From the San Diego base, that means regularly boarding and searching suspicious vessels approaching the southern California shoreline; it might also mean dashing east along the U.S.-Mexican border in this very same helicopter to lend assistance to officials facing some emergency challenges from &quothitchhikers" from the south.

Add to that the task of monitoring the seaworthiness of hundreds of thousands of vessels of all kinds and sizes; of watching out for oil and fuel spills (there's at least one such incident a day just in the San Diego bay); of checking navigability standards of waterways of all kinds. Throw in also the need to run a fleet of arctic icebreakers, though I didn't see many of those in San Diego.

What ultimately impressed me most about all this, though, and the reason I write about it here, was neither the breadth of the assignment nor the technical proficiency of the service--although both those aspects are noteworthy. What caught my attention especially was that here was a component of that big federal government we deride so often, the government we've all become so cynical about, quietly carrying on with obviously high morale. And they're doing it even after having been trimmed in budget and staff by at least 10 percent over the last four years. Just ahead is another round of even more severe cuts.

I heard no bellyaching, no complaining, no self-serving charges against the bureaucrats in Washington. &quotI think we're demonstrating that even when they lay a few more tasks on us, we can get it done," said executive officer Bob Quirk. Captain William Hayes concurred, noting that support and planning functions may have suffered a bit, but that operations are up to snuff. Lieutenant Jay Allen, the fellow who piloted my helicopter, told me he has no fear that safety has been compromised in the big cutbacks and drawdowns that have affected the military services as well as the Coast Guard.

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