WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will be stripped of its ability to shift funds within its budget next year if it doesn’t get buy-in from the congressional defense committees to reprogram $2.5 billion in defense funds for the border wall, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith told Bloomberg Government on Wednesday.
“We will zero out their reprogramming authority for fiscal year 2020,” Smith, D-Wash, reportedly said. “That is our position,” Smith said, referring to Democrats on both the House Armed Services and Appropriations panels.
Pentagon has been tasked to move $2.5 billion into a counter-drug fund that President Donald Trump wants to use to build a border wall, but lawmakers fear that Pentagon leaders will not formally ask for authority to take funds from other programs and put them in the counter-drug account.
“They might say there’s no legal requirement and that would be a huge disruption of the rules and the norms of Congress, and another indication this is a challenge to the role of Congress in government,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I.
“We’re given the authority to appropriate, and the president is saying, essentially: I don’t like what you’ve appropriated, I’ll just take the money and move it elsewhere,” Reed said. “We’re setting up for a constitutional issue of significant importance.”
Typically, it takes unanimous agreement from eight key lawmakers, the chairmen and ranking members of the appropriations and authorizing committees in the House and Senate, to approve a reprogramming request. But lawmakers believe the Trump administration will assert that that this is only tradition between the executive and legislative branches, and not written in law.
On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., sided with the president and suggested the issue would be tackled in the annual defense policy bill between the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House.
“The president does have the authority to do that. In this presidency, the practice doesn’t mean too much—and I say that complimentary, actually,” Inhofe said in a brief hallway interview.
The Pentagon routinely goes back to Congress after its budget is signed into law to ask to move money, typically for gaps that appear after its budget is formulated. Generally, Congress is amenable to those requests, which tend to be apolitical and come with common-sense rationalizations.
On Wednesday, Reed questioned why the administration would divert millions of important defense dollars toward barriers that are of questionable value. There are real multibillion-dollar needs to repair hurricane-damage at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and Camp Lejeune, N.C., he said.
“That’s around $9 billion of known repairs and that should come way before any wall,” Reed said.
Pentagon officials have been mindful of the need to walk carefully with this process, partially due to concerns the department is risking its long-term credibility with Congress. Analysts, interviewed before Smith’s remarks became public, agreed the danger is real.
“The White House is putting DoD’s positive relations with their authorizing and appropriating committees at risk by making DoD the piggy bank for the president’s wall,” said Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “DoD needs Congress’ trust on the budget, and using DoD to fund the wall collapses that trust. “
“Acting Secretary [Patrick] Shanahan will have to validate the president’s declaration of a national emergency to release the money, Congress will understandably resent their legal direction being suborned, individual members of Congress will resent their specific programs being docked, and critics of spending levels will feel vindicated there is too much loose money sloshing around in the defense budget,” Schake said.
The timing of this move, just ahead of the FY20 budget release next week, could create headaches for the department as it works to justify its spending plans to Congress over the coming months.
Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and now senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that “making reprogrammings without the concurrence of Congress will certainly damage DOD’s relationship with its oversight committees.”
However, Pentagon officials can minimize the damage by providing lawmakers a wealth of information through briefings and communication. "Congress will be angry that it has to fund certain projects twice, but DoD will point out that failure to backfill will not affect the wall but will affect the troops,” Cancian said.
“I don’t expect Congress to reject more reprogrammings just to be spiteful,” Cancian said, adding that lawmakers would look to make such maneuvering more difficult in the future — a prediction that looks prophetic in light of Smith’s remarks Wednesday.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.