By: Ellen Mitchell – thehill.com – February 17, 2020
Lawmakers are calling out the Trump administration over its latest plan to shift billions of dollars meant for the Pentagon’s budget to instead pay for border wall construction.
The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee are among the numerous lawmakers that last week pushed back on President Trump‘s move to divert $3.8 billion from various weapons programs into its counter-drug fund to be used to build his signature project.
“The re-programming announced today is contrary to Congress’s constitutional authority, and I believe that it requires Congress to take action. I will be working with my colleagues to determine the appropriate steps to take,” committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a statement in response to the funding move.
Though he did not mention Trump by name, Thornberry said such a reprogram attempt “undermines the principle of civilian control of the military and is in violation of the separation of powers within the Constitution.”
He added that funding for wall construction “must come through the Department of Homeland Security rather than diverting critical military resources that are needed and in law.”
Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the administration was stealing the cash for the sake of fulfilling a Trump campaign promise.
“The President is obsessed with fulfilling a campaign promise at the expense of our national security. This Administration has already stolen billions from the Department of Defense in order to begin building the President’s vanity wall and today they are doubling down on bad policy,” Smith said in a statement.
All Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Democrats also called the transfer “divisive” and “poisonous to the relationship we seek on national defense matters.”
“As was the case last year, the Department of Defense did not request, and the Congress did not provide, any defense funds for border wall construction,” the senators wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper last Thursday.
“This repeated maneuver to transfer funds once again is in contrast to the long-established processes involving consultation with the defense oversight committees of Congress on reprogrammings and transfers. Engaging in this scheme again is not only divisive, but also poisonous to the relationship we seek on national defense matters – which should be above this type of rancor and partisanship.”
The White House shifted the reprogramed dollars — originally set aside to pay for aircraft, ships, vehicles and additional programs –- to build 177 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico.
The Pentagon first notified Congress last Thursday of the decision to move the $3.8 billion in funds, which is on top of the $6.1 billion Trump took from the Pentagon last year for the wall.
Trump was able to move the dollars by declaring a national emergency on Feb. 15, 2019, sidestepping Congress when lawmakers would not provide the billions of dollars he requested for his wall.
The White House last Thursday renewed the emergency for another year, prompting further outrage from Democrats.
“Congress has repeatedly voted in a bipartisan way to refuse funding the President’s wasteful, ineffective border wall,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement.
“This latest effort to steal Congressionally-appropriated military funding undermines our national security and the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution,” they added.
Esper last Friday defended the decision to move the money, telling reporters at an international security conference in Munich that “border security is national security.”
Esper, who had been asked about the bipartisan blowback on the funding shift, said the action “is legal under the law.”
“That should be no surprise and I’ll just leave it at that for now,” he added.
Despite lawmaker pushback, Trump last year successfully pulled $3.6 billion from the Pentagon by cancelling or holding off on dozens of military construction projects.
Congress twice voted to overturn the national emergency that allowed such transfers, but was unable to override his vetoes.
The money reprogrammed last Thursday is being taken under a different executive authority that allows counter-drug funds to be used on the wall.
Robert Salesses, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense, insisted that the transfer “will not adversely affect the military preparedness of the United States.”
“The comptroller identified funding sources that are excess and early to the current programmatic needs,” he told reporters last week.
But lawmakers aren’t buying it.
“We are dismayed that the Department decided to target congressional increases to a vast number of critical programs, from aircraft to ships, including the perennially-underfunded Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and other Reserve Components,” the Democratic senators wrote to Esper.
“We urge you to bear in mind that Congress has paid for the projects you have cancelled once, and we are under no obligation to pay for them a second time.”
Programs that will take a hit this year under the money grab includes the Air Force’s F-35 program, which is set to lose $156 million for procurement, with aircraft funding in total to take a $1.4 billion hit.
Shipbuilding will also suffer, with the landing helicopter assault replacement program losing $650 million and the expeditionary fast transport program losing $261 million.
Another $1.3 billion meant for equipment for the National Guard and reserves will also now be funneled to border construction.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), expressed concern in particular over the Guard and Reserve dollars, which are being taken from a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.
“These funds were intended to upgrade outdated aircraft and maintain readiness by improving equipment and weapons systems, which could affect West Virginia’s National Guard and Reserve units’ preparedness as well as manufacturing jobs in our state,” Manchin said in a statement last Friday.
“This is a direct violation of Congress’ power to appropriate funds,” added Manchin, who has supported the construction of a wall.
Trump while meeting with members of the Border Patrol Council last Friday said the administration has built 122 miles of the wall along the nearly 2,000 miles of U.S.-Mexico border. Most of what has been built is replacement for the old barrier from the George W. Bush administration.
And at his recent State of the Union address, Trump also said that he intends to finish “over 500 miles” of the wall by the beginning of 2021.
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