WASHINGTON ― The Pentagon is moving to scuttle nearly 19 more military construction projects ― including $274 million worth in Europe to deter Russia ― as a means to backfill a number of building projects at home that were deferred to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper directed the moves in a memo Monday to acting Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker, which was obtained by Defense News. Overall, Esper plans to reshuffle $545.5 million in the department’s construction budget.
The funding shifts detailed Tuesday would deal a particular blow to efforts to deter Russia in Europe, where roughly $1 billion in planned projects stand to lose funding to pay for the southern border wall. Those projects include infrastructure for military aircraft, fuel and munitions storage through the European Deterrence Initiative.
Key House Democrats ripped the Trump administration for partially backfilling canceled military construction projects to build his “wasteful” border wall. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., called it, “an end run around Congress.”
“Even worse, Trump is doing this by canceling funding for critical European Deterrence Initiative projects that were designed to bolster real national security needs and prevent Russian aggression against American allies and partners in Europe,” they said in a joint statement Tuesday.
“Once again, the Trump Administration is putting domestic political considerations ahead of national security, and Trump is trampling on Congress’ power of the purse in the process. The American people deserve better, but they will only get it when Congressional Republicans join us and stand up to this out-of-control President.”
The latest plan would move 2021 funding for projects in places like Texas and Guantanamo Bay, but also Spain, Norway, Germany, Jordan, Japan and the Kwajalein Atoll, so that the Pentagon restart 22 projects in 17 states that had been defunded.
When Esper in September approved the diversion of $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to pay for barriers and fences in Texas, Arizona and California, he suggested European allies could help replenish $771 million for 40 projects across Europe.
The Pentagon has maintained all the affected projects are “deferred,” but Congress would have had to backfill the funding. In his memo on Monday, Esper said his new funding shifts would enable the execution of projects scheduled for contract awards this calendar year and would “ensure adequate funding remains available” for border wall projects.
The latest move comes as a federal appeals court in Washington on Tuesday began considering the Trump administration’s decision to use billions of dollars more than Congress intended by declaring the U.S.-Mexico border an emergency the Defense Department should handle.
Democrats and some Republicans have fiercely rejected the move as a power grab by the executive branch.
Among big projects being restarted, the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, New York, would now see $95 million for an engineering center and $65 million for a parking structure. The others ran the gamut from training ranges to medical facilities and a $63 million middle school at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the value of military construction to local communities.
“This will certainly be welcome news to the bases and communities that are being taken off the cut list because it will help inject money into local communities to help with the economic recovery later this year,” said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“But for members of Congress and others that objected to the use of DoD MILCON funds for construction of the border wall, this doesn’t change much — the same amount of funding is being diverted, just from different sources," he added.
More than 20 projects worth $538.4 million remain deferred, including an $85 million project at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to construct a new operations facility for an MQ-9 UAV formal training unit.
The next largest project still on hold is a $58 million Coast Guard pier and maintenance facility at U.S. Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state.
Aaron Mehta and Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress reporter for Defense News.