MIAMI and WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has pushed through a $1 billion reprogramming request despite opposition from Democratic leadership — fully expecting the House to strip the department of its ability to reprogram funds in the future.
The money was transferred to the Corps of Engineers on Tuesday night, Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist told the House Budget Committee on Wednesday morning. Norquist, who is also acting deputy defense secretary, said: "They can put it under contract if the contracts are ready.”
Speaking to reporters while en route to Florida, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan confirmed that the plan had been to push the reprogrammed funding through regardless of what he termed “consequences” for the department long term.
“Yes it is. We’re following the law,” Shanahan said when asked if the plan was to reprogram despite congressional intent. “We’re very sensitive to the consequences of these kinds of actions, and the relationships we’ve built up over time.
“There are going to be consequences, and I understand the position of the committees. I also have a standing legal order from the commander in chief,” he added.
Shanahan’s comments came while traveling en route to U.S. Southern Command. Defense News is traveling with Shanahan for the duration of the trip.
On Monday night, Shanahan announced that he had authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spend up to $1 billion to support the Department of Homeland Security’s request “to build 57 miles of 18-foot-high pedestrian fencing, constructing and improving roads, and installing lighting within the Yuma and El Paso Sectors of the border.”
The action comes amid galvanizing opposition from congressional Democrats.
While Shanahan was traveling Wednesday, the House’s lead appropriator for defense, Rep. Pete Visclosky, made public a letter denying the Pentagon’s reprogramming request. While, legally, the department has the right to move its funding around, the tradition has been to ask Congress to approve their requests out of respect for the legislative body.
Visclosky suggested that the administration, with this move, was creating lasting damage. “With this unilateral action, the historic and unprecedented comity that has existed between the Committee and the Department has been breached,” said Visclosky of Indiana.
A day earlier, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., offered his own denial. Previously, he warned that if the Pentagon pushes through a reprogramming without his approval, the House’s Democratic leadership would move to strip its authority to reprogram money for future fiscal years.
Asked if he expected Smith to follow through on his threat, Shanahan was blunt, saying “I would expect that to happen. [Smith] wouldn’t say that and not mean it.”
Losing the authority to reprogram funds could be a major blow to the Pentagon’s ability to respond to crises, according to analysts. They warn losing that ability could hamstring the department in the future.
“It’s just a very difficult situation,” Shanahan said. “It’s going to take, we’re going to have to be artful to manage this. I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.