Sen. Bill Nelson’s public service career began in 1972, with his election to the Florida Legislature. He then served six terms in the U.S. Congress representing Orlando and the Space Coast. In 1994, Nelson was elected to the Florida Cabinet as state treasurer, insurance commissioner, and fire marshal. In November 2000, he was first elected to the U.S. Senate.
Coast Guard Outlook: What motivated you to go into public service?
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson: As a young student at Yale University, I still recall how much I was influenced by President [John F.] Kennedy’s call to public service and his view of service as noble work. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to serving the community, state, and our country. I’m grateful and remain humbled by the opportunity Floridians have given me to serve them over the years.
We authorized a 21 percent increase in appropriations for the service’s acquisitions account in each of fiscal years 2016 and 2017, in order to make sure the Coast Guard has the national security cutters and other surface and air assets it requires to secure our maritime borders.
As the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, how have you seen the Coast Guard change during your tenure?
During my time on the committee, I’ve seen tremendous changes as the service has expanded its missions and then settled into a more balanced approach between its prevention missions and response missions. More recently, I’ve actually seen a continued steadying of the service by [Commandant of the Coast Guard] Adm. Paul Zukunft. I believe that’s a wise approach – especially in a time of fiscal uncertainty.
The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 authorizes $9.1 billion for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. How does the authorization covering two years rather than one aid the Coast Guard?
I think that approach also helps steady the service. Congress used to work on a separate Coast Guard authorization bill for each fiscal year. But if you look at how we authorize most other federal government entities and programs, it’s almost always on a multi-year basis. I think having a two-year authorization gives the Coast Guard a more concrete idea of what its statutory authorities are, and provides better continuity of those authorities over time.
In February, you were quoted, in part, saying, “The Coast Guard is on watch every day saving lives and stopping drug traffickers.” In his 2016 State of the Coast Guard Address, Zukunft said assets interdicted or disrupted more than 190 metric tons of cocaine and detained some 700 suspected drug traffickers for prosecution in FY 2015 alone. Is Congress doing enough to support the Coast Guard’s efforts to combat drug traffickers?
Yes, I believe Congress is doing a lot to support the Coast Guard. We authorized a 21 percent increase in appropriations for the service’s acquisitions account in each of fiscal years 2016 and 2017, in order to make sure the Coast Guard has the national security cutters and other surface and air assets it requires to secure our maritime borders. The current authorization act also includes some enhancements to the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act to better equip the Coast Guard to combat illicit drugs and the smuggling of drug money out of the United States.
Considering the challenges the service faces today and in the future, do you think the Coast Guard will require a significant increase in personnel?
I think that’s a hard thing to predict, but I’m encouraged by the fact that advances over time in technology have helped us keep pace with new challenges as a society. The substantial reduction in crewing requirements on the Coast Guard’s new cutters compared to those of its high endurance cutters [WHEC Secretary-class cutters] and medium endurance cutters are a perfect example of that. It takes fewer people to operate a national security cutter, and those extra HEC billets can be reassigned to an additional national security cutter, or wherever they may be needed.
Among the provisions in the act was the creation of a second admiral position that will align the Coast Guard’s leadership structure to that of the other four services. Do you support the role of a vice service chief at the national level? Why or why not?
Absolutely. This was a change in the law that the Coast Guard requested and I think it makes perfect sense. The purpose of having a vice commandant is for the commandant to have someone who can stand or act in his place when he is not able to be present for whatever reason. The word “vice” literally means “takes the place of.” Giving the vice commandant a fourth star enables the commandant to fully utilize his vice service chief in this way.