WASHINGTON ― Congressional Democrats are furious about the Pentagon’s decision on Monday to transfer $1 billion from military personnel funding to build President Donald Trump’s wall along the border.
The fact that the Defense Department is reallocating money without congressional approval “constitutes a dollar-for-dollar theft from other readiness needs of our Armed Forces,” reads a Monday letter by Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Marine Corps will be forced to cancel or significantly reduce participation in training exercises and cut back on maintenance spending on combat equipment, warned Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
“There are obviously more pressing issues with readiness and modernization that these funds could ― and more importantly should ― go to,” he said in a statement.
Smith even publicly released a Tuesday letter to the Defense Department saying that his committee was denying the Pentagon’s request to reallocate the money. So did Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
What? Can House chairmen prevent the Pentagon from spending $1 billion on Trump’s wall? The short answer is no. While Congress has the power constitutionally to decide how much money federal agencies get and what they spend it on, lawmakers have routinely granted the Defense Department some flexibility to transfer funds. They can’t dictate how the Pentagon spends its money after it’s been appropriated. The letters from Smith and Visclosky are more like statements of disapproval to the Pentagon.
But Smith and Visclosky, who are currently working on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2020 spending bill, are uniquely positioned to use that bill to strip the Pentagon of its ability to move money around. And they’re hinting that they’re prepared to do it.
If the Defense Department is transferring $1 billion without the consent of Congress ― the first time it’s ever happened, per a Smith aide ― then Congress can take away its transfer authority altogether.
“Getting rid of that transfer authority or sharply limiting it is certainly on the table,” the aide said.
The House is aiming to pass the Defense spending bill in June. Ahead of his subcommittee’s markup of the bill, Visclosky is making it clear he’s pissed about the Pentagon bypassing Congress to spend money on Trump’s wall.
“With this unilateral action, the historic and unprecedented comity that has existed between the Committee and the Department has been breached,” he said in a statement. “This unprecedented action will clearly be a consideration as the Committee disposes the entirety of the Department’s budget request, including its current transfer authority.”
Of course, if House Democrats do strip the Pentagon of this authority, their Defense spending bill would still have to clear the Republican-controlled Senate.
“That’s not going to happen,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A Defense Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the House potentially stripping the Pentagon of its transfer authority, for the first time in decades, as recourse for reallocating money for Trump’s wall.
Instead, the spokesperson emailed a statement about Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan authorizing the transfer of $1 billion.
″These funds will be used to support [the Department of Homeland Security’s] request to build 57 miles of 18-foot-high pedestrian fencing, constructing and improving roads, and installing lighting within the Yuma and El Paso Sectors of the border in support of the February 15 national emergency declaration on the southern border of the United States,” the spokesperson said.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.