WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lawmakers from both parties told Pentagon leaders on Wednesday that the Defense Department is undermining its own efforts to get military money by diverting billions of dollars for the construction of President Donald Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the committee's top Republican warned Defense Secretary Mark Esper that overturning congressional funding decisions to shift money for the wall is an enormous problem that will have consequences.
The plan to shift money has triggered rare Republican opposition to one of Trump's priorities.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the result may be that Congress will place greater restrictions on the Pentagon's ability to move money around to meet military needs. The chairman, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, said the money transfer is “very, very damaging to the Pentagon.”
“The message it sends is the Pentagon has plenty of money,” said Smith, adding that it “undercuts any arguments for any need for resources.”
The Pentagon announced this month that it was slashing billions of dollars in funding for Navy and Air Force aircraft and other military programs to free up money for the construction of the wall.
Esper approved the $3.8 billion border wall request from the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon acknowledged that more cuts could be coming to provide additional dollars for the wall. Trump has repeatedly claimed that Mexico is paying for his promised “big beautiful wall,” but that has never happened.
The Pentagon's decision, announced in “reprogramming” documents provided to lawmakers, stripped money from major aircraft and procurement programs that touch Republican and Democratic districts and states.
Pointing to the $1.5 billion stripped from National Guard programs, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said she's “concerned the Pentagon is going to become the piggy bank for any pet project. Today it could be the wall, tomorrow it could be someone's decision to fund a health care project.”
Slotkin, a former senior policy adviser at the Pentagon, told Esper that, “you leave us no choice but to look at what we can do to constrain your reprogramming authority.”
Esper said the money was shifted from programs that had more money than needed or had money that wasn't needed right away. As an example, he said that if the department sought funding for three F-35 fighter jets and Congress decided to fund five, the money for the additional two would be considered “excess.”
Congress, which has final budget authority, often makes changes to budgets requested by various departments including the Pentagon, and adds money to programs that lawmakers deem important. Esper's comments set off alarms for those who worry their budget authority is being usurped.
Lawmakers also noted that the U.S.-Mexico border is not included as a priority at all in the Pentagon's new national defense strategy. Esper said homeland security is a priority and noted that many things aren't listed in that strategy.
Esper, however, has repeatedly said the department is conducting several reviews to make certain the budget reflects priorities in the current strategy, which lists China and Russia as the key global threats.
Despite congressional opposition, Trump faced no consequences when making similar transfers last year, when the Pentagon canceled dozens of military construction projects to free up $3.6 billion and transferred $2.5 billion in counterdrug money.
All together, Trump has obtained just over $3 billion for border barrier construction by working through regular congressional channels, subject to limitations imposed by lawmakers. He has used various transfer and emergency authorities to shift almost $7 billion more from the emergency declaration, from a forfeiture fund containing money seized by law enforcement and from funding for military counterdrug activities.
Specifically, the plan targets money for more than a dozen aircraft, including two F-35 fighters sought by Texas Rep. Kay Granger, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and other members of the Texas congressional delegation.
It also cuts money for eight Reaper drones, four Air Force C-130 transport aircraft, two Marine V-22 Osprey helicopters and also for amphibious ships, National Guard equipment and Army trucks.