Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall
Four top Senate Democrats are urging Defense Secretary Mark Esper to reject President Trump’s expected request to use another $7.2 billion in Pentagon funding for his southern border wall.
“We are deeply concerned with reports that the President intends to raid another $7.2 billion from the Department of Defense (DoD) to construct a border wall,” the senators wrote in a letter to Esper released Friday.
“We urge you to oppose this action and consider the airmen in aging hangars, soldiers in failing maintenance shops, sailors training to improve readiness, Marines in asbestos-laden operations centers, and all of their families relying on deteriorating schools and child development centers, before you divert funding from military construction accounts,” they added.
The letter was signed by Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee; Dick Durbin (Ill.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of Defense; Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of military construction.
The letter comes after The Washington Post first reported earlier this week that Trump is planning to take $3.5 billion from the Pentagon’s counterdrug programs and $3.7 billion from military construction funding to use to build the border wall.
The initial reports led to fuming from Democrats. Republicans were more subdued but said they also had questions about the administration again planning to use Pentagon funding for the wall.
The additional $7.2 billion comes after Trump tapped $2.5 billion in Pentagon counterdrug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funds last year.
After Trump used Pentagon funds for the wall last year, House Democrats included provisions in the annual defense policy and spending bills that would have restricted the ability to transfer money between accounts. But those provisions were taken from the versions signed into law after negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate.
Still, Congress did not replace the money taken out of Department of Defense funds for the wall when it passed the spending bill in December.
“Congress specifically did not provide any requested DoD funds for border wall construction or to backfill the September 2019 raid of $3.6 billion from various military construction accounts,” the Democratic senators wrote in their letter to Esper. “It is illogical in the extreme to assume that Congress will provide any funding in FY 2021 to backfill projects once-again raided for a border wall that does not serve our national security.”
The senators added that it is “unnecessary and inappropriate” to take more money from the Pentagon when the money that has already been taken has not been spent.
The Democrats also expressed concern that money for the wall could come from a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, citing expectations that the administration will request more money for the account amid rising tensions in the Middle East.
“We understand that there may be an effort to propose a new supplemental appropriations bill due to the crisis in the Middle East, but such a proposal would make no sense if the very same funds are to be raided for further wall construction,” they wrote in the letter, dated Thursday. “We note that the president has claimed that Saudi Arabia will pay ‘100 percent of the cost’ of additional troop deployments to that country, making the case for a supplemental appropriations request even more puzzling.”
The senators demanded Esper answer several questions “in the event you are preparing to announce another raid on the military budget.” Questions include what criteria the department would use to identify projects to cut money from, whether the burden would be evenly split between overseas and domestic projects and how much money Saudi Arabia has paid for troop deployments.
The senators also asked whether the military services will issue project cancellation notices to Congress for projects that have already been cut because of the wall funding and how the Pentagon is mitigating the effects of delays in projects.
“We expect you to exercise good judgement and be transparent and communicative with us,” they wrote, “especially as we move into development of the Fiscal Year 2021 authorization and appropriations bills.”