Bipartisan Armed Services leaders tear into Pentagon over use of $3.8B for border wall

The top Democrat and Republican on the House Armed Services Committee tore into Pentagon officials on Wednesday over the Trump administration transferring $3.8 billion, mostly from weapons programs, to build the president’s southern border wall.

In separate opening statements and questions at a hearing with the Pentagon’s top officials, committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), its ranking member, ripped the funding transfer as an “enormous problem” and a break in “literally decades” of precedent.

“This is an enormous problem,” Smith said at the hearing with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “It undercuts any argument about the need for resources within the Department of Defense. And it also undercuts the congressional process.”

“There have been decades, literally decades of practice where if there are changing needs money can be moved within the department budget with the approval of Congress,” said Thornberry, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. “I’m afraid that the result of this will be greater restrictions on the department’s ability to move money around to meet changing needs, and the country will suffer as a result.”

Smith and Thornberry have both previously expressed concern about the most recent transfer of military funding to President Trump’s border wall, but Wednesday’s hearing provided an opportunity for them to pointedly address Pentagon leaders in public.

Smith and Thornberry also sent the Pentagon a letter this week rejecting the funding reprogramming. The letter, though, was largely symbolic, as Department of Defense officials have said they transferred the money as soon as they sent Congress its notice.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon notified Congress it would transfer $3.8 billion from various programs to its counter-drug fund to be used to build the wall.

Among the programs that are losing money to the wall are the F-35 fighter jet, MQ-9 reaper drone, the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane, the C-130J transport plane, the landing helicopter assault ship replacement, the expeditionary fast transport ship and unspecified equipment for the National Guard and reserves.

The latest transfer comes after the Pentagon last year used $2.5 billion from counter-drug funds and $3.6 billion in military construction funding for the wall.

In his statement on Wednesday, Thornberry differentiated between the money taken last year and what is being used this year. Last year, much of the money that was transferred to the counter-drug fund came from Army personnel accounts after the service did not meet its recruitment goals.

“This is not taking excess funds,” Thornberry said of this year’s funding grab. “It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress by reducing specific weapons that had been authorized and appropriated. We made a different judgment call than the administration’s budget request.”

In his questions to Esper, Thornberry asked whether the annual defense policy bill “is going to matter” or if the White House will “send down a directive saying even though it’s signed into law, authorized and appropriated, we’re going to take away some money.”

Esper insisted that “what the Congress does matters,” adding “we look to the Congress as partners.”

Thornberry appeared unconvinced, replying that he’s “already expressed some of the concerns I have.” 

Smith, meanwhile, highlighted that the Pentagon recently sent Congress lists with tens of billions of dollars of so-called unfunded priorities.

“It was somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 [billion] to $30 billion of ‘unfunded’ requirements and at the same time, ‘meh, we found $3.8 billion just sitting in a corner that can go to a purpose that was not intended,’” Smith said.

He also noted that some of the military construction funds taken for the wall last year came from projects in Europe.

“These are particularly important because these are projects that were done in partnership with our NATO allies,” Smith said. “And if our NATO allies cannot even rely on us to come through on a — I forget the exact amount of money, I think it was in the tens of millions, maybe just over a $100 million [military construction] project — if we can’t come through with that, how much can they rely on us?”

As other committee members pressed Esper and Milley on the wall funds throughout the hearing, Milley said $3.8 billion would not be “a significant, immediate, strategic negative impact to the overall defense of the United States of America.” Milley also stressed the “precisely selected” words of “strategic” and “overall.”

“It’s a half of one percent of the overall budget, so I can’t in conscious say that it’s significant, it’s immediate, the sky is falling, it’s going to be a dramatic detriment in the preparedness of the U.S. military to defend ourselves,” Milley said. “We can defend the United States of America.” 

Though Thornberry offered strong words against the funding transfer, few other Republicans joined him.

“It is Congress’ failure to act, not your actions, that are resulting in dollars being taken from the Department of Defense budget,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said to the witnesses. “Congress’ failure to act is the failure to actually provide the funds necessary to secure our border.

One exception was Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), who said he thinks “we risk a whole lot” to reprogram funding for the wall without congressional approval. While stressing his support for Trump’s border policy, Kelly stressed that “we have to be careful about how we reprogram.”

In particular, Kelly said it was “alarming” that more than $1 billion of the $3.8 billion is coming from National Guard funds.

Kelly added that “at a minimum” Pentagon leaders should talk with Smith and Thornberry to “make [the reprogramming] a whole lot more palatable.”

After the hearing, Thornberry told reporters he would “look at a variety of options” to respond to the transfer, including restricting the Pentagon’s ability to reprogramming funding. Last year’s House-passed National Defense Authorization Act would have limited the Pentagon’s transfer authorities, but those restrictions were taken out of the final bill signed into law amid opposition from Republicans.

“They put us in a position where we have to defend our Constitutional responsibilities,” Thornberry said. “Maybe because I’m leaving, I feel especially acutely the institutional consequences of what’s happening. Because you did hear somebody say, if this can happen for this, then President Bernie Sanders can do it for ‘Medicare for All.’ It’s endless.”

Updated at 4:04 p.m.

Tags Adam Smith Bernie Sanders Donald Trump House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry Mark Esper Mike Turner military budget Trent Kelly Trump border wall

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