Lawmakers criticize Pentagon plan to divert defense funds for border wall

Feb. 26 (UPI) — Members of Congress from both parties cautioned Pentagon leaders Wednesday against diverting money designated for the defense budget to construct more sections of a wall along the southern border of the United States.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2021, Republicans and Democrats both expressed concern that the Pentagon would dip into funds earmarked for projects like counter-drug operations and military construction projects.

Earlier this month the Pentagon submitted a reprogramming request to divert $3.8 billion — $2.02 billion from fiscal 2020 funds and $1.6 billion in fiscal 2020 overseas contingency operations — to fund sections of the border wall.

The Pentagon legally has the power to reprogram up to $6 billion per year at its discretion. Last year it pulled $1 billion from excess Army personnel funds.

“This year is very different,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee’s ranking member. “This is not taking excess funds, this is substituting the judgment of the department — and actually the administration. I think, my opinion is, this is not totally at the discretion of the secretary. It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of Congress. I am deeply concerned about where we’re headed with the constitutional issue.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., blasted the reprogramming request when it was first made public Feb. 13, and was heavily critical at Wednesday’s hearing.

“This is an enormous problem. The message it sends is that the Pentagon has plenty of money. It undercuts the congressional process. This basically says that Congress doesn’t spend the money, the president does,” Smith said.

Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said he was supportive of President Donald Trump‘s policy on the border, but “we have to be careful about how we re-program.”

“I think we risk a whole lot with the $3.8 billion reprogramming to fund a border wall without consulting with Congress,” he said.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has repeatedly declined to fund efforts to construct more sections of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting the president to seek money from the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the move Wednesday, telling lawmkers, “The president has decided there’s a national emergency on the border,” likening the shift in priorities to a natural disaster response.

Esper also said the $705.4 billion fiscal 2021 budget — which is 0.1 percent higher than that for fiscal 2020 — is not sufficient for keeping up with inflation.

“Given this flattened funding level, we made many tough decisions to ensure our highest priorities were adequately funded,” Esper said.

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