Pentagon Leaders Grilled on Border-Wall Spending

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and David Norquist, far right, the Defense Department’s budget chief, arrive to testify at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers laced into high-ranking Defense Department officials Tuesday as they met to hash out the department’s 2020 budget, with one congressman calling the Pentagon’s plans to use military funds to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border “unbelievably irresponsible.”

Staunch criticism was offered up by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee but its Democratic chairman, Representative Adam Smith of Washington, didn’t mince words as he blasted the Defense Department for its plans to divert funds from as many as 150 ongoing international projects – valued at roughly $4.3 billion – in order to get long-term southern border wall construction underway.

“Whatever one feels about the wall, to look at the Pentagon as a sort of piggy bank [or] slush fund where you can just simply go in and grab money for something when you need it, really undermines the credibility of the entire [Department of Defense] budget. Funding the border wall out of the Department of Defense is also unbelievably irresponsible,” Smith said.

Smith’s lament stems from President Donald Trump’s decision to override Congress and veto a bill passed by the House and Senate this month which overturned Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. The president’s declaration allowed him to effectively begin the process of obtaining border wall funding.

On Monday, just ahead of his testimony, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan approved the reallocation of roughly $1 billion from programs focused on anti-drug enforcement toward the construction of 57 miles of border fencing plus the installation of lighting along the way and the construction of access roads.

The decision to act unilaterally was “very difficult,” Shanahan said as he sat before the committee Tuesday.

He and other officials were aware the decision was going to “affect our ability long-term to be able to do discretionary reprogramming that we had traditionally done in coordination.”

“And we understand the significant downsides of losing what amounts to a privilege. We looked at the risks longer-term to the department and those risks were weighed,” Shanahan said.

But at the end of the day, he said the department was given a “legal order from the commander in chief” and building the wall by using untapped military construction funds took priority.

Defense Department Comptroller David Norquist explained to lawmakers that the money for the wall was being pulled from a military personnel fund that was up for grabs since the U.S. Army fell short of its recruiting targets.

“The funds that would have gone to pay those soldiers – if they had on-boarded – [are] no longer needed for that purpose,” Norquist said. 

The chance to use that money also runs out in September, he said. It would not have rolled over into the next year, so putting it toward the border wall seemed prudent after review, he said.

The committee’s ranking Republican member, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, also pressed the Pentagon officials Tuesday, saying he was opposed to using funds earmarked for programs at the Department of Defense for other means.

“This is going to have difficult consequences for the whole of government, but especially for the Defense Department,” Thornberry said.

He was slightly softer on Shanahan than Smith, however. The Texas Republican acknowledged the acting secretary was under pressure and regularly facing criticism for some decisions he “had nothing to do with.”

The 2020 budget for the Pentagon includes $7.2 billion in emergency funding. Of that amount, roughly half is flagged for the construction of new barriers at the border. The other half – roughly $3.6 billion – is leftover to remain on tap for any emergency funding the White House opts to use.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Chairman Smith made his position even clearer, sending a formal letter to Norquist denying the Pentagon’s request to place $1 billion toward additional barriers at the border.

The committee typically has greater control over the appropriations process for the Pentagon but with the president’s veto in effect and an emergency declaration still place, the committee may soon find itself in a stand-off.

The Pentagon did not immediately return request for comment Tuesday.

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