Funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, where about 5,000 troops are currently deployed to help with border protection and migrant detention, is one of the main issues holding up a defense authorization bill and budget on Capitol Hill. But, according to the House’s top military lawmaker, this year’s funding has already been taken care of, in a way.
Because the administration used statutory power to re-program Defense Department dollars from personnel, military construction and other accounts to pay for building border barriers, House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Thursday, the border wall budget is now overflowing, and he has tried to relay that to the White House.
“And you managed to steal $6.1 billion out of the Pentagon budget, and you did that fair and square,” Smith told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute. “They don’t like the word ‘steal,' by the way. Declare victory, OK? You managed to get $7.5 billion for the wall, and I’m told ... they can’t spend that $7.5 billion before the end of [fiscal year 2020].”
Because of the contracting process and the amount of border area that is privately owned, he said, the administration can’t use all of what it’s shored up for the wall, so the Republican-controlled Senate should approve the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Bill, rather than hold up funding for 2020.
Then, he added, they can let the issue play out in the 2020 presidential campaign, with voters deciding whether they agree with President Donald Trump’s push for a border wall.
“We got what we need, we believe this is important, and let’s go have the argument in front of the American people ― instead of jeopardizing the defense bill, putting us on the brink of another government shutdown, upsetting all of the Pentagon’s responsibilities,” Smith suggested.
As of September, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has authorized up to 5,500 troops deployed to the border at any given time, through FY2020.
“I don’t think there’s a policy debate that this should not become part of the Pentagon’s core mission ― either taking money out of milcon — taking money out of DoD to build it — or taking personnel and putting them out there as their primary task,” Smith said.
For now, the Senate’s version of the NDAA has $17 billion more in the House’s, though Smith said he felt confident that if the issue couldn’t be resolved by the end of this week, there was still a chance to avoid a government shutdown by the end of the year.
“I believe that the White House should declare victory and recognize the fact that the Defense Department poach is a one-time only thing, given the extreme circumstances they were in,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.