While the Trump administration awaits a final decision on a federal lawsuit blocking the use of military construction funds to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, the White House is planning to re-route more than $3 billion more this year, the Washington Post reported Monday.
The plan is to divert $3.7 billion from an account designated for building training centers, schools and other facilities on military bases, according to internal documents leaked to the newspaper. Another $3.5 billion would come from counter-drug operations.
Key Republican and Democratic lawmakers were not happy and seemed to be caught off-guard. Neither Senate Appropriations Committee Richard Shelby, R-Ala., nor Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman, R-Ark., appeared to have been given a head’s up by the White House.
“I wish they wouldn’t take [wall funding] out of defense. I want to build the wall, I supported direct appropriations for it and fought for it — but we have to evaluate what this does to the military, what it affects, where and how,” Shelby said, adding that nobody should be surprised the administration repeated the tactic, after it worked last year.
Boozman said he was reaching out to see if the White House would scale back the number and what the “unintended consequences” might be for moving the money.
“The only thing I know about it is what I’ve read, so we are in the process of exploring. I’m certainly very supportive of the wall at the southern border,” Boozman said. “But also I’m very supportive of the fact that our MilCon dollars are underfunded to begin with.
Spokesmen for the White House and Defense Department did not immediately respond to Military Times requests for comment.
The figure is a $200 million boost from the Pentagon funds the administration used to build the border barriers in 2019, paying for about 885 miles of construction, according to the Post.
Specifically, the 2019 military construction funds had been set aside for rebuilding several DoD schools both in the U.S. and abroad, special operations training centers in Europe and Hurricane Maria relief for Puerto Rico National Guard facilities, totaling more than 100 projects.
The Pentagon has not announced which projects would be affected in 2020.
Meanwhile, a Texas federal judge in December put an injunction on those military construction dollars, barring the Army Corps of Engineers from using them to build barriers. Following an appeal by the government, a Louisiana judge lifted the injunction on Jan. 8, according to court documents, allowing construction to continue as the lawsuit plays out in court.
On Capitol Hill, the stage seemed set Tuesday for a fight that might drag out over the entire budget cycle, if last year is a guide. The Post report angered House Democrats who oversee spending bills and lost a tough negotiation with Senate Republicans over previous efforts to siphon military funding to wall construction
The border wall was a major sticking point for the passage of the 2020 defense authorization and spending bills, holding up their passage until December. Though the Senate’s Republican majority did not secure funds specifically for border construction, the Pentagon counter-drug and military construction accounts were still fair game.
The latest planned border wall diversion was “totally unacceptable,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y.
“They want to do a lot of things, but it’s totally unacceptable to me and the committee,” Lowey said in a brief hallway interview. “I don’t have the details yet, but we will have to deal with it.”
Roughly 70 percent of US military infrastructure is in fair or poor condition, said Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. Trump, she said, “stole” $3.6 billion that Congress approved for service members last year, for a “boondoggle of a border wall,” that Congress did not directly approve.
“This is theft by the president of the United States that will gravely damage the readiness and quality of life of our service members,” she said. “We need Republicans to join us to say, ‘enough is enough’ so we can prohibit this in the next appropriations act.”
Lowey, Wasserman-Schultz, and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., released a joint statement saying the decision would, “ will make Americans less safe, burden more military families, and do further violence to the Constitutional separation of powers that are inherent to our democracy.”
Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, said that Pentagon leadership will face tough questioning when they come to Capitol Hill to defend the military’s budget, due to be released next month.
“This can’t continue. We can’t sit there and listen to the Department of Defense say these are critical needs for the troops, for their quality of life, their training and their readiness ― and have that all ignored (by the White House),” Reed said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.