On the Chesapeake and around the country, the job of searching for lost boaters is just one of a multitude of tasks falling increasingly on the Coast Guard.

That growing burden is part of a larger problem for the federal maritime safety organization. With more boats to inspect, more people to rescue and more crime to police, the Coast Guard says it isn't getting the resources it needs from Congress to handle its mushrooming responsibilities.

The Coast Guard's budget - adjusted for inflation - actually decreased 30 percent between 1992 and 1998. And the $4.5 billion Coast Guard budget signed by President Clinton in October is $158 million less than last year's total funding for the service.

"You can stretch and stretch a rubber band, but it will only go so far before it breaks," said Jack O'Dell, a national Coast Guard spokesman.

"It is a small outfit and they have a huge responsibility," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee. "We don't think about [the Coast Guard] until we want them to be there."

But Gilchrest, a five-term Republican Congressman from the Eastern Shore, and others complain that the Coast Guard's leadership is part of the problem. The agency doesn't ask for the resources it needs, he explained in a recent interview.

"We have a hard enough time getting people the money they ask for let alone the money they don't ask for," said Gilchrest legislative director Eric Webster.

O'Dell, the Coast Guard's spokesman, counters, "We are fighting as hard as we know how. We are an organization that has a reputation for getting a big bang for the buck." And he admits that this reputation may not help when it comes time to approve funding.

"We have never asked for more than we need," O'Dell states. "We have always been good team players."

What the Coast Guard needs, says Rep. Frank R. Wolf, is someone to go to bat for them on Capitol Hill. Wolf was asked recently about ways that the agency could improve its operations and funding.

"I personally believe the Coast Guard would be better off in the Department of Defense," said Wolf, chair of the House transportation appropriations subcommittee.

"Their problem is that they have been an orphan in the Department of Transportation."

Wolf, a Republican Congressman representing a Virginia district stretching from the Washington suburbs to the West Virginia line, says that when the DOT budget comes to his committee there is only so much money available. Increases are hard to come by, he says, when other transportation agencies such as Amtrak and the FAA are also asking for more.

He believes this problem would be less acute if the Coast Guard were included in the large and powerful Department of Defense. "They are military people," Wolf says of the Coast Guard.

Privately, many within the Coast Guard agree that they would be better served and funded within the DOD.

But budget increases can take years to bear fruit and no matter who gets the blame the fact remains that for years the Coast Guard has been asked to do more with less. So much less that some experts are sounding the alarm, fearing that the agency may soon fall short of its lofty credo, Semper Paratus: always prepared.

The Coast Guard's equipment is rusting. The average age of a cutter is now 27 years, making this force the second oldest major naval fleet on the planet, with some vessels built as long ago as World War II, according to Democratic Rep. William D. Delahunt, a retired Coast Guardsman.

"The demands on the Coast Guard have vastly outpaced its resourcesÂ…There is no longer any margin for error. And the consequence of any such error is literally a life-and-death matter," Delahunt said recently in a plea to Congress to increase the force's funding by almost a billion dollars.

"That's what it will take for the Coast Guard to do the job we have assigned it to do. To contain oil spills, to catch smugglers and, above all, to save lives."