Democratic chairman rejects Pentagon’s use of $1 billion for Trump’s border wall

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Tuesday rejected a Pentagon request to move $1 billion from counter-drug funding to help build President Trump’s promised border wall, threatening that such a transfer would jeopardize the Department of Defense’s (DOD) ability to move money in the future.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan late Monday said he had authorized moving up to $1 billion to block “up to 11 drug-smuggling corridors along the border” by building 57 miles of 18-foot-high pedestrian fencing in support of Trump’s Feb. 15 national emergency declaration.

But Smith in a letter sent to the Pentagon’s chief financial officer, David Norquist, said the committee “denies this request” and “does not approve the proposed use of Department of Defense funds to construct additional physical barriers and roads or install lighting in the vicinity of the United States border.”

Smith, who released the letter as Shanahan testified on Tuesday before the committee on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget request, said during the hearing that taking defense dollars for a border structure would be “unbelievably irresponsible.”

The move is largely symbolic, however, as the Pentagon is still legally able to move ahead with such a transfer.

Traditionally, Congress allows the Pentagon to reprogram funding that has already been appropriated in order to quickly respond to threats and changes in the world.

DOD officials must notify Congress in advance and lawmakers are then given the chance to agree or deny the request, though the Pentagon is not required by law to obtain their approval before it moves forward.

“It has been the practice of the Department of Defense to request approval and it’s not required by law,” a DOD official told reporters last month when asked if the Pentagon would move forward on the reprogramming if Congress does not approve the request.

“You are not asking for our permission,” Smith bluntly told Shanahan on Tuesday.

He also warned that should the department move ahead on the $1 billion transfer, “the result of that likely is that the Appropriations Committee in particular would no longer give the Pentagon reprogramming authority and I think that’s unfortunate because they need it.”

Shanahan acknowledged that officials “understand the significant downsides of losing what amounts to a privilege.”

“It’s a very difficult discussion,” he said. “The conversation took place prior to the declaration of a national emergency, it was part of the consulting that went on. … We said here are the risks longer term to the department, and those risks were weighed.”

Shanahan added that he was aware there are “downsides which will hamper us.”

The Trump administration is seeking to use $6.1 billion of Pentagon funding to build barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. A total $2.5 billion is expected to be taken from counter-drug programs and $3.6 billion from military construction funds, as part of two separate executive actions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, have urged Trump not to divert Pentagon funding to build a wall, insisting it would hurt military readiness.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the House Armed Services ranking member, told reporters during a break in the hearing that he was “absolutely” concerned with the reprograming transfer.

“My understanding is they intend to move the money, regardless, and that is a matter of considerable concern,” Thornberry said. “I think people on both sides of the aisle [are concerned], appropriators, authorizers, not just us, but other committees, too.”

He added that should the Pentagon’s ability to reprogram be taken away “it will have real repercussions.”

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump Mac Thornberry Patrick Shanahan
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