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Battle looms over Pentagon money for border security

February 21, 2019
In The News

Outcry from Democrats on Capitol Hill and some key U.S. defense officials mounted Monday over the prospect that President Trump’s emergency declaration will result in a raiding of certain Pentagon coffers to finance the construction of a border wall.

Former vice presidential candidate and Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Tim Kaine slammed Mr. Trump, claiming the president is pursuing a “vanity project” in a fashion bound to hurt U.S. forces and their families.

“The president is taking money away from troops and their families to fund his vanity project,” the Virginia Democrat told The Washington Times. “Diverting nearly one-third of the military’s construction money for the entire year to fund a wall — when we have significant military construction needs — is a big mistake.”

The Trump administration declared a national emergency on the southern border on Friday, announcing plans to draw money from military construction programs to fund a border wall. Mr. Trump said he will draw $3.6 billion from Pentagon accounts — an approach that requires a national emergency declaration — on top of some $6.5 billion of unspent federal funds to pay for the wall.

The White House is also moving $2.5 billion from military counter-narcotics programs, and $600 million from a Treasury Department forfeiture program that collects money from drug lords and other criminals.

Mr. Trump’s announcement was met with stark opposition from Democratic lawmakers, who challenged the president over whether there is, in fact, a national emergency.

“There’s a major issue that the president is usurping the authority of Congress [and] he’s using this phony emergency to take money that Congress has refused to appropriate” for the border wall, said Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, on Monday.

“There is a fundamental constitutional issue in play here,” Mr. Garamendi told The Times, suggesting Mr. Trump has overstepped the constitutional authority of the presidency by doing an end run around Congress to finance the wall’s construction.

Following the president’s announcement last week, Mr. Kaine sent a letter to acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan demanding additional details, including a list of military projects that could lose funding.

“I am concerned that a project that the president stated would be paid for by Mexico will now be borne by military service members and their families, as they will be forced to remain in ‘poor’ or ‘failing’ conditions,” he said citing a backlog of military maintenance requests that total to over $116 billion.

Mr. Shanahan responded over the weekend, telling reporters the administration’s demands will not undercut funds dedicated to repairing housing for U.S. troops and their families, and asserting that he will make the final call on $3.6 billion in military construction money requested by the White House.

The defense secretary’s assurances came as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller made headlines of his own by asserting that his service alone needs $3.5 billion in required repairs to Camp Lejeune, including to military housing. He stressed the funds are badly needed to repair the Corps’ largest east coast facility in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Florence.

“We don’t have money for that. If we have to pay that ourselves, it’ll take the [military construction] budget of the Marine Corps for probably the next four years,” Gen. Neller said in an interview with USNI News on Sunday.

The Marine Corps will likely not be the only service facing tough budget decisions over needed facility repairs in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision. Air Force officials are facing millions in unpaid repair bills at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.

The Pentagon has already issued nearly $175 million in repair contracts for 144 different facilities on the base to tackle damage incurred in October during Hurricane Michael, base Vice Commander Col. Brian Laidlaw said last month. It’s not clear how much more work may be required to bring the base, which is home to several next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, back online.

In private, some officials have expressed concern that the hurricane repair work, coupled with the traditional military construction projects, which could be postponed or canceled due to border wall funding, will undo careful Pentagon planning designed to maintain operational readiness for U.S. forces.

Mr. Garmendi emphasized such concerns Monday. “The readiness of the military units is dependent on these projects,” he told The Times.