WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both major parties criticized White House plans to take an additional $7.2 billion this year from Pentagon funds to pay for President Donald Trump's border wall project, as more congressionally approved renovation and construction plans for U.S. military installations risked losing their funding.
For the second year in a row, the White House is planning to obtain the majority of the funding it wants for Trump's barrier project by defunding construction and maintenance projects on military bases at home and abroad and taking money from elsewhere in the Pentagon's budget by funneling it through the counternarcotics program.
Senior Republicans grumbled about the plan but mostly put the blame on Democrats, who agreed to provide $1.4 billion in border barrier funding this year — far less than the $5 billion Trump requested.
"I wish they'd get the money somewhere else, instead of defense," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "But I do support building the wall."
The White House shifted $2.5 billion using counternarcotics authorities last year, but this year Trump plans to boost that to $3.5 billion. Trump administration officials also are planning to take $3.7 billion in military construction funding, slightly more than the $3.6 billion diverted in 2019.
"I think it's outrageous," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the armed services committee, who called it "a slap to the military as well as a slap to Congress" and "another example of Congress sitting down and trying to direct resources that are of critical need to the Department of Defense, and then having those needs disregarded by the president for a project that is more political than necessary for national security."
The additional funds would give the administration the money to build about 885 miles of new barriers by 2022, significantly more than the 509 miles the administration had set as a target for the end of Trump's first term.
Despite launching his run for the presidency on a promise to make Mexico pay for the cost of a "border wall," Trump has struggled to convince lawmakers that the project is necessary and useful. If his administration diverts $7.2 billion again this year, it will bring to $18.4 billion the total amount of funds budgeted for Trump's wall.
Most of that money — $13.3 billion — would come from Department of Defense money appropriated by Congress for other purposes.
"I'm not in favor of diversions of budgets that were appropriated for specific purposes, and I'd rather see specific appropriations for the wall," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday, Jan. 14.
Lawmakers appropriated $1.05 billion for drug interdiction and counterdrug activities in the 2020 fiscal year, far less than the $3.5 billion the White House is seeking to divert from those programs this year. That means the Pentagon would have to find money elsewhere in its budget for the remaining $2.45 billion.
Trump administration officials repeatedly have tried to play down the potential impact of the funding maneuver on military assets and operations, depicting the move as an act of creative accounting.
The $3.6 billion the White House shifted from 2019 military construction projects would be "deferred," Pentagon officials said last year, and would proceed, in some cases without delay, once Congress "backfilled" the diverted funds in the 2020 budget.
But that has not happened. In December, House Democrats and Senate Republicans reached a $1.4 trillion spending package that didn't backfill the money. As a result, the construction projects that the Pentagon defunded in 2019 for the wall effectively were canceled.
For those projects to go forward, Congress would again have to appropriate funding for them. House Democrats have opposed such a maneuver, which they view as an acquiescence to the president's defiance of their spending authorities. The Constitution gives the power of the purse — or the authority to fund the government's initiatives and operations — exclusively to Congress.
The military projects that lost funding to the border barrier in 2019 included schools on military bases at home and abroad, as well as repairs to military installations in Puerto Rico that suffered damage from Hurricane Maria. The U.S. Navy also was forced to stand down on projects meant to fix "life safety violations" and fire hazards at ship-maintenance buildings in Virginia.
European nations also took a hit. More than $700 million was taken from projects the Pentagon agreed to fund in allied nations in Europe to help shore up defenses against Russia after Moscow's annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said those countries, which rely on the United States to protect them in the event of Russian military action, should "pick up the tab" for the projects themselves.
The Pentagon's counternarcotics account had far less money in it than Trump wanted to divert to the wall, so the Pentagon moved money into the account from elsewhere in its budget. The funds came from money slated for the Afghan national security forces, the destruction of chemical weapons and the purchase of precision missiles.
The Pentagon also tapped unspent military retirement funds to come up with the $2.5 billion that Trump was demanding. What funds the Pentagon will tap this year to shift $3.5 billion through the counternarcotics account to wall financing is unclear.
Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said the Defense Department had nothing new to announce regarding this year's plans.
Reed said he had not spoken to GOP senators yet, but he added that "this can't continue."
Congress approved $738 billion for the national defense budget this year, up from $716 billion last year.
"We can't sit there and listen to the Department of Defense say we have critical needs for the troops, quality of life for their training and their readiness and then have that thrown all overboard," Reed said. "How can you come up to us and say, 'We desperately need these projects — this is critical, it's critical to the quality of life of the troops — and then say, 'No, not really.' "
The Trump administration has installed 101 miles of new fencing, according to the most recent construction figures.
The president has promised to finish more than four times that by the end of this year, but Homeland Security officials have tried to fudge that target, saying in recent days that the total will include completed barriers and sections "under construction."
Nearly all of the new barriers the government has built so far are along sections of the border already under federal control, where crews have replaced smaller, older barriers with steel bars set in concrete that extend 30 feet into the air.
This article was written by Jeff Stein, Paul Sonne and Nick Miroff, reporters for The Washington Post.