WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled Pentagon officials about the president’s plans to repurpose military construction dollars for his southern border wall by use of his national emergency declaration.
Defending the Pentagon’s response, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon told a House Appropriations subpanel that Defense Department leaders may repurpose fiscal 2019 funding from lower-priority projects, defer the projects and then ask Congress to replace the money through the president’s FY20 budget request.
Democrats have disputed the veracity of the emergency, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, reacted angrily to the Pentagon plan as endangering military readiness to undermine Congress’ power of the purse.
“Mr. Secretary, you’re fooling no one, really,” Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told McMahon. “I don’t know what sort of chumps you think my colleagues and I are, but canceling, deferring, coming back in FY20 to replace all leads to the same thing. You are taking money from vital projects that the military previously said were essential, spending that money on a wall and asking for the money to be backfilled later — when we already had that debate and the president’s proposal was rejected.”
McMahon repeatedly insisted that he and other Pentagon officials were simply “executing the commander in chief’s direction” and working to minimize harm to military readiness as the department selects projects to defer temporarily.
Republicans probed McMahon, but mostly held fire, letting Democrats vent their skepticism and frustration.
“Excuse me for a moment, Mr. Secretary, but the president’s budget request is not law, the FY19 budget is law,” Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., reminded McMahon at one point. “The president’s FY20 budget request has not and is not assured to be appropriated. The FY19 budget is appropriated and it is law.”
Bishop also seemed to suggest that the Pentagon’s credibility with Capitol Hill and with its own ranks is on the line.
“I just want to understand how you will justify it in terms of morale for the troops who have seen these hard-fought projects come up to be funded … and how you can condone — and I know it’s above your pay grade — how you justify the violation of the Constitution,” Bishop asked.
The testimony came a day after House Democrats ignored a veto threat and passed legislation that would stymie President Donald Trump’s bid for billions of extra dollars for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The move has escalated a clash over whether he has abused his powers to advance the signature pledge of his 2016 campaign.
The House’s vote Tuesday to block Trump’s national emergency declaration fell well below the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override what would be the first veto of Trump’s presidency, and the issue is now in front of the Senate. Aside from what’s happening on Capitol Hill, the administration is facing a slew of lawsuits challenging the declaration.
Congress, in a bipartisan, bicameral agreement, agreed to provide $1.4 billion for barrier construction — well below the $5.7 billion Trump demanded as he forced a record-setting 35-day federal shutdown.
To reach an $8.1 billion total, the administration wants to use emergency powers to tap $3.6 billion in unspent military construction funds, $2.5 billion from counternarcotics programs and $600 million from Treasury Department asset forfeitures.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense integration, Robert Salesses, confirmed that Pentagon planners are also looking at moving funds from other accounts into the counternarcotics accounts, which is reportedly depleted.
In the past, reprogramming has been done with congressional approval, but Pentagon officials told lawmakers at the hearing that a signoff from Congress is not required by law — a point Wasserman Schultz disputed.
Lawmakers also expressed parochial and strategic concerns to McMahon over multimillion-dollar projects at Fort Gordon’s cyber school, Fort Benning’s Naval Reserve Training Center, dry dock modernization at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, flight line drainage at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, and a nascent engineering center at the Army’s school in West Point, New York.
McMahon — in multiple exchanges with lawmakers — committed to providing Congress with a by-project, by-state list of projects whose funding could be redirected. For weeks, lawmakers have been keen to know whether projects in their districts or states will be impacted.
By way of explaining the Pentagon’s process for selecting projects for deferral, McMahon said that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has asked the Department of Homeland Security for a list of border construction projects “that could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of DoD personnel supporting the border mission." DHS has not yet replied.
Shanahan so far has neither identified construction projects in the Pentagon’s own budget, which can be delayed to pay for border barriers, or formally validated whether the use of the relevant emergency authority is needed.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is working to determine which projects pose little to no operational or readiness risks if deferred, projects already set to be awarded in the last six months of the fiscal year, and recapitalization projects that can be put off for a few months. Family housing projects aren’t under consideration, McMahon said.
The process, McMahon said, would be deferential to the secretaries of the armed services, but the Office of the Secretary of Defense had not yet consulted with them.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, asked how McMahon will keep politics out of the project selection process and ensure that projects aren’t chosen to punish members who voted for the resolution to terminate the national emergency.
McMahon, a retired Air Force two-star general who served in uniform for 34 years, insisted the decisions would be made apolitically and that anything else would not be tolerated.
“I am aware of no senior leader, military or civilian in the [Pentagon] who would ever put at risk taking care of [troops] and our capability to fight simply for the role of politics,” he said. “If I sound emotional on that issue, I am. We’re tremendously proud of the approach we take to take care of those who serve our nation.”
“I’m sorry to say that many of us are more concerned about the commander in chief’s inability to leave politics out of this,” Pingree replied, “but I greatly respect your answer.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.