House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith on Tuesday rejected a Pentagon move to shift $1 billion in funding for more Southern border barriers, and warned Pentagon leaders of stiff budget consequences if it unilaterally shifts the money.
“The committee denies this request,” Smith wrote in a letter. “The committee does not approve the proposed use of Department of Defense funds to construct additional physical barriers and road or install lighting in the vicinity of the United States border.”
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It’s unclear the extent to which Smith’s panel can deny the money movement, since the Pentagon is acting on an order from President Donald Trump and has indicated it will do so unilaterally. Smith’s letter potentially sets up a standoff between the Pentagon and the policy-writing committee as it weighs the Pentagon’s budget proposal.
On Monday evening, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved $1 billion in anti-drug-trafficking funding to be diverted to build 57 miles of border fencing as well as roads and lighting aimed at blocking “11 drug-smuggling corridors.”
Top lawmakers of both parties have warned they may cut off the Pentagon’s ability to move money within its budget if defense leaders violate longstanding custom by shifting funding without asking Congress’ permission.
In a House Armed Services hearing on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget Tuesday, Smith pressed Shanahan on the consequences of shifting $1 billion without going through lawmakers.
Shanahan acknowledged that unilaterally shifting $1 billion for more border barriers will hinder the Pentagon in the future.
“The discussion … is that by unilaterally reprogramming, it was going to affect our ability long term to be able to do discretionary reprogramming that we had traditionally done in coordination,” Shanahan said. “It was a very difficult discussion, and we understand the significant downsides of losing what amounts to a privilege.”
Shanahan said the administration discussed the approach before Trump’s national emergency declaration and argued he tried to be “transparent in this process, fully knowing that there [are] downsides, which will hamper us.”
“We said, ‘Here are the risks longer term to the department,’ and those risks were weighed,” Shanahan said. “And then given a legal order from the commander in chief, we are executing on that order.”
In addition to tapping into military construction funds that had not been spent yet, the Trump administration is seeking to redirect $2.5 billion in counterdrug funds toward the barrier. Those funds are largely depleted and the Pentagon must transfer money into the account before diverting it toward the border.
Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist told lawmakers that money would come from unspent funds in Army personnel accounts.
“The source of the money … is the military personnel account. The Army was falling short of its recruiting targets,” Norquist said. “So funds that would’ve gone to pay those soldiers had they been onboard is no longer needed for that purpose.”
The fiscal 2020 Pentagon budget proposal includes $7.2 billion in emergency funding for border barriers. That total is evenly split between funding for new barriers and replenishing the $3.6 billion the Trump administration is seeking to raid from military construction accounts this fiscal year.
Democrats have blasted the Pentagon over a lack of specifics on how it will help fund the border wall, as well as the deployment of troops to the border in support of the Homeland Security Department.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Shanahan said the department’s border mission won’t affect top Pentagon readiness and modernization priorities, noting border barrier funding amounts to less than one percent of the entire national defense budget request.
But the concern about the effect of freezing the Pentagon’s ability to shift money was bipartisan.
“I also agree with the chairman that changing decades of reprogramming practice is going to have difficult consequences for the whole government, but especially for the Department of Defense,” said ranking Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas.
The House is slated to vote Tuesday on overriding Trump’s veto of a resolution to terminate his national emergency declaration on the border, but that vote is expected to come up short.