STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The partial government shutdown affects one branch of the United States military. It's the Coast Guard, which normally operates under the Department of Homeland Security. Forty-two thousand members of the Coast Guard are considered essential personnel so they must work.
They got a pay check December 31, but it's not clear when they can be paid again. They once answered to Admiral Thad Allen, who is a former commandant of the Coast Guard. He directed the response to Hurricane Katrina years ago, and he's in our studios. Admiral, welcome to the program.
THAD ALLEN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I should note, you left the Coast Guard in 2010, but there must still be people serving today who served under you. What do you think of their situation?
ALLEN: I think it's pretty, pretty bad. I think when you have people who are providing emergency services to this country without pay, I think we ought to take a serious look at how we're governed.
INSKEEP: You mean you don't agree with this shutdown?
ALLEN: Well, I agree that we need to accomplish the ends of the country. I don't think this is the right way to do it. We shouldn't hold any agency political hostage to negotiations.
INSKEEP: The president has said that he's hearing from federal workers, go on, keep going - because they want the wall. Are you hearing from Coast Guard members, people that you know who are still in the service, that they agree with this?
ALLEN: Coast Guard men and women aren't getting involved in political discussions about the wall. They're trying to do their jobs - save lives and protect the American public. That's what they're focused on. And they would like to be able to do their jobs and get compensated.
INSKEEP: Is the Coast Guard a particularly well-paid service?
ALLEN: Well, we're paid on par with the other military services. We are just in the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Department of Defense. And the lack of an appropriation is the cause of the problem right now.
INSKEEP: Is it true that some members of the Coast Guard, when they are paid, are being paid below the poverty level? These are not high-paying jobs at all?
ALLEN: Well, this applies to all service. If you have your petty officer with a family with, say, two or three kids, their base pay is below the poverty level established by HHS. Now, they do get allowances for housing that does raise that. But their base pay is below the poverty level.
INSKEEP: So do you think it is realistic for someone who's in the Coast Guard, in one of those lower-paid jobs, to miss a few paychecks and not have to worry about it too much?
ALLEN: No. It's an outrage.
INSKEEP: What do they do?
ALLEN: They're doing their job. And they're dependent on the American public and the people that run this government to make sure they're paid on time.
INSKEEP: Would you describe what duties they are fulfilling without pay right now? What are the ordinary daily operations of the Coast Guard?
ALLEN: Well, the Coast Guard is essentially the emergency services in the maritime environment for the country. There are people standing search-and-rescue watch over every inch of coastline in the United States right now. They are cutters patrolling off shore. There's drug interdiction operations going on. We have an icebreaker en route to Antarctica to break up McMurdo so they can resupply the South Pole. All that's continuing.
INSKEEP: McMurdo. That's one of the scientific research stations down there?
ALLEN: That's the base station that resupplies the South Pole. Yes.
INSKEEP: OK. And so they're actually, like, trying to cut through there. That actually, like, a life-or-death situation. That has to happen, or not.
ALLEN: They break the ice every year to allow the base to be resupplied, which is the base point resupplying the South Pole station.
INSKEEP: Now, you also said drug interdiction. This is really interesting because President Trump, last night in his speech advocating a border wall, talked about the flow of drugs from Latin America. We have learned in our fact-checking segment that not a lot of those drugs go over land illegally. They go through legal ports of entry. There's also some that go by sea, right?
ALLEN: The United States Coast Guard has probably seized more drugs than any agency in the history of this country. When you get a boatload of cocaine off Central America, you're taking tons out of the traffic, rather than ounces and pounds.
INSKEEP: And they would go into an ordinary port if they're undetected, and they would unload that cocaine and it would get into the United States. That's the way it...
ALLEN: Well, a lot of the drug flow comes from South America into Mexico and crosses the border. The Coast Guard's strategy is to attack that threat as far away from our shores as we can. So off Colombia, off the coast of Central America and the Caribbean, we have cutters forward deployed trying to stop those drugs before they ever get to Mexico.
INSKEEP: So let me understand this. If you're concerned about the flow of illegal drugs from Latin America into the United States, what you want to worry about is the Coast Guard?
ALLEN: It's quizzical, isn't it?
INSKEEP: (Laughter). What do you mean by quizzical?
ALLEN: It doesn't make sense.
INSKEEP: That they would not be paid in this situation?
ALLEN: Well, there are other government agencies. We have the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, National Park Service. Everybody's in the same condition right now, and we ought to be concerned about it.
INSKEEP: What does this say about our politics right now?
ALLEN: That we're having a hard time governing this country. I think we're involved in probably what is the greatest civics lesson of our lifetime right now.
INSKEEP: What is the lesson?
ALLEN: The lesson is that all branches of government have to work together to produce the outcomes the American people should expect under the preamble of the Constitution.
INSKEEP: What advice would you give to members of the Coast Guard if they reached out to you and just said, what should I do in this situation? What do you want me to do?
ALLEN: Well, I think everybody should continue to do their duty. They will inevitably get back pay. The question is cash flow. Families are living paycheck to paycheck. This doesn't help them with babysitting costs, putting food on the table, transportation and so forth.
INSKEEP: Or paying rent or anything else.
INSKEEP: Admiral, thanks very much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
ALLEN: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Admiral Thad Allen was 23rd commandant of the United States Coast Guard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.