Two weeks after the Defense Department announced it would chip in funds to build barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border for a second year, lawmakers fired back at the Pentagon’s top officials both face-to-face and through proposed legislation on Wednesday.
Senators and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle expressed dismay that Defense Secretary Esper would sidestep Congress’ will by reprogramming money designated for counter-drug operations and military construction projects to pay for the Army Corps of Engineers to build hundreds of miles of wall.
“This year is very different,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the House Armed Service Committee’s ranking member. "This is not taking excess funds, this is substituting the judgment of the department — and actually the administration. I think, my opinion is, this is not totally at the discretion of the secretary. It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress.
The Pentagon has not specifically asked for and Congress has not appropriated any border wall funding, but Esper has over the past year signed off on moving billions of dollars budgeted for counter-drug operations and military construction.
Last year, $1 billion of their roughly $7 billion contribution came from excess Army personnel funds, freed up because the service hadn’t made its end strength goal for the year. This year, much to the concern of lawmakers, DoD used its power to transfer almost $4 billion from its acquisition budget into the counter-drug account, canceling some plans for more aircraft, ships and ground vehicles.
“I think we risk a whole lot with the $3.8 billion reprogramming to fund a border wall without consulting with Congress,” Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., told Esper.
Though the Pentagon legally has the power to re-program up to $6 billion a year without Congress’ approval, members warned against defying authorization decisions for the administration’s wishes.
“I’m supportive of the president’s policy on the border, but we have to be careful about how we re-program,” Kelly added.
Meanwhile, about three dozen Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors to a bill introduced Wednesday Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois aimed at reversing the Pentagon’s reprogramming.
“Every dollar diverted from our men and women in uniform for President Trump’s ‘big, beautiful’ border wall was appropriated by Congress to address a need identified by our military," Durbin said in a statement. “This latest reprogramming was not just an attack on Congress’ power of the purse, it was an attack on military readiness.”
Lawmakers have taken specific umbrage with the $1.5 billion taken from National Guard modernization programs, which pulls funding from every state, including those with no active-duty military presence.
“If Republicans go along with turning the Pentagon into a presidential piggy bank, it will weaken national defense now and in the future and set a precedent that can’t be undone,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in the statement. "President Trump is taking billions from military equipment and platforms and diverting it to an ineffective fence because he failed to get Mexico to pay for it. It’s an insult to our troops and a misuse of needed defense funds.”
Whether that legislation goes anywhere, there is a possibility that the Pentagon has finished chipping in for the border wall.
Though officials have not definitively said whether they will dip into military construction funding again this year, the deputy assistant defense secretary for homeland defense integration told reporters in February that with the money put up by DoD and the Homeland Security Department, Trump’s goal of 722 miles should be completed by the end of 2022.
“I don’t have anything specific, but it’s clear that we’ll be meeting the requirements that have been identified by the president to accelerate and build the border barrier as quickly and effectively as possible,” Bob Salesses said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.