Lawmakers are pushing back against President Trump’s effort to reroute money from the 2020 Pentagon budget to fund his signature barriers along the southern border, yet so far lack enough support to halt the bid.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Security Committee flatly rejected the tactic in a Tuesday letter to the Defense Department, then harangued Defense Secretary Mark Esper from the dais during Wednesday’s posture hearing on the 2021 budget request.
“This is a constitutional issue,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who co-wrote the letter with Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “This is a deeper issue than the wall.”
But the letter has no legal force — its main significance is the signature of the soon-to-retire Thornberry — and other senior Republicans on the committee remained silent on the issue, or explicitly defended the president’s move.
“It’s Congress’s failure to act, not your actions, that are resulting in dollars being taken from the Department of Defense budget,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, pointing to Congress’s decisions to only partially fund earlier Trump requests for more money for border barriers. “It is our congressional law that allows the president to take these funds to secure our border.”
Esper insisted that the Defense Department looks to Congress as a “partner.”
“What the Congress does matters,” Esper said. “We look to the Congress as partners as we try to develop our game plan to serve the country.”
In order to enforce the letter, lawmakers would have to vote to restrict the Pentagon’s authority to reprogram money already appropriated by Congress for a specific purpose, as it has done with the wall. That authority has already been renewed for this year, and the legislation that lawmakers would need to edit is not scheduled to see the floor until much later in the year.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday also pushed back on the reprogramming, releasing legislation during the hearing that would slash the administration’s authority to move the funds.
House Armed Services Democrats repeatedly roasted the effort. Committee chairman Adam Smith, D-Calif., as well as Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., pointed out that moving the funds to pay for the wall sends a public signal that the military doesn’t “need the money.” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., called it a “rip-off.”
“You are headed towards a major brawl with this committee,” Garamendi said.
In a statement responding to Garamendi, DOD spokesman Alyssa Farah cited “the productive working relationship between the Department and committee members who understand the Secretary’s visible commitment to working closely with Congress.”
Earlier this month, Trump informed lawmakers that he intends to reprogram roughly $4 billion in Defense Department funds to pay for border barriers, according to a budget request first reported by Defense One.
The funds will be drawn mainly from procurement for major weapons programs, including for the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet, as well as from shipbuilding. $1.3 billion will be drawn from the National Guard alone.
The $4 billion in procurement reprogramming is part of a total of what is believed to be roughly $7 billion in military construction and counternarcotics funding that the White House is planning to divert.
The White House appears to be cutting from projects that Congress boosted by billions of dollars above what the Pentagon requested this year.
The wall — and how it will be paid for — has remained one of the most politically divisive issues of Trump’s presidency. The president has turned to reprogramming already-appropriated funds to cover the costs, claiming authority under an emergency order he declared last year after Congress repeatedly refused to fund the request. The fight resulted in an historic 35-day government shut down last year.
Democratic lawmakers have in the past threatened to yank Trump’s authority to reprogram funds. Last year, Trump raided military construction funding to pay for the project.
“I’m concerned that the Pentagon is going to become the piggy bank for any pet project,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a freshman and former Pentagon official. “I appreciate that you say you want to work with Congress and you respect us, but you don’t if the money we’ve appropriated is going for something else.
“I think you leave us no choice but to look at what we can to do to constrain your reprogramming authority.”
The move has raised hackles from some Hill Republicans — even those who support the construction of the wall, like Thornberry. Some of those concerns revolve around the institutional concerns, while others are simply opposed to taking money away from the military. But so far, there has been little appetite from Republicans to help Democrats muster the votes to enforce their disapproval.
“I’m supportive of the president’s policy on the border, but we have to be careful about how we reprogram,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., who raised concerns with using funding for the National Guard for the wall.
“I think it would be much easier if you would at least discuss with the chair and ranking member what we’re going to reprogram — that would make it a whole lot more palatable to all of us,” Kelly said.