WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s proposal to shift nearly $1 billion in personnel funds to help build President Donald Trump’s controversial southern border wall likely won’t take money out of troops’ paychecks. But it may undermine the entire military budget, lawmakers warned.
At issue is a plan Pentagon leaders floated to lawmakers earlier this week to move $1 billion in unused personnel money out of those military accounts and into the Defense Department’s drug interdiction programming. Lawmakers briefed on the idea say it is mostly an accounting dispute, taking unused money initially authorized for things like recruitment bonuses and would not likely have any impact on military paychecks or benefits for today’s force.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the money would come from “military pay and pensions” and blasted the Republican administration for raiding those accounts. But other lawmakers downplayed those concerns, saying they are less worried with where the money is coming from and more worried about the budgetary precedent being set.
Shifting the funds will allow the White House to use the money for the border wall project, after Trump declared a national emergency to get around congressional opposition to the idea. And unlike in the past, when the Pentagon sought congressional approval before moving ahead with similar money moves, Trump administration officials appear poised to ignore congressional objections.
“Not following the practice that has been followed by decades will affect the relationship between the legislative branch and executive branch," said House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. "There will be a reaction, and it will make it harder to reprogram in the future to meet emerging needs.”
Charlie Summers, acting Pentagon press secretary, said “no decision has been made” about using personnel money to fund the wall. He did not dispute reports that the idea was discussed. But lawmakers included in the Pentagon discussions said the plan was presented to them as a near certainty, although details of what personnel funds may be moved still need to be finalized.
Thornberry said the personnel funds were “described to me as unexecutable funds” that would not have a direct effect on any current military pay or benefits.
Durbin told AP the money would come from unused Army recruiting funds and unassigned military pension funding, both of which have expired and have limited use within the personnel programs.
Todd Harrison, director for defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that “it is not unusual to move money out of (military personnel accounts) when you have a recruiting shortfall, but the intended use of this money is unusual.”
Democrats and some Republicans have bristled in recent weeks since the president’s declaration of an immigration emergency, saying that using the broad executive powers in a political way undermines the entire legislative budget process.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he is upset at the latest Pentagon funding move proposal, but not because personnel funding is involved.
“My concern is not where it coming from,” he said. “My concern is where it is going: to something that has nothing to do with the national security of this country and where we should not be spending money.
“And what is different about this is they’re not asking, they’re just doing.”
Military leaders have about $4 billion in appropriations reprogramming authority for fiscal 2019. But traditionally, all significant funding shifts are approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees, and the two chambers’ Armed Services panels.
“Every other administration has always asked,” Smith said. “If we say no, they don’t do it.”
Earlier in the week, Smith had expressed concerns that the Pentagon may abuse its reprogramming powers, and warned that Congress may need to place limits on that in the future.
If the latest plan moves ahead, “we are unlikely to give them reprogramming authority in the future,” Smith said.
“We have understanding. There have been many reprogramming requests that have been denied. This time, they are breaking that rule.”
Along with the drug interdiction account, the White House is expected to pull more than $2 billion from military construction accounts to help pay for the border wall. Pentagon officials have not yet detailed which military projects may be affected, but have said they will not target military housing or other builds dealing with force readiness.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.