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Lawmakers warn Pentagon about shifting money to border wall

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 26: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testify before the House Armed Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill Feb. 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. The military leaders were testifying about the proposed FY2021 defense budget. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Top members of the House Armed Services Committee assailed Pentagon leaders Wednesday, warning that the administration’s reprogramming of $3.8 billion of Defense Department money for a border wall could damage its relationship with Congress.

Echoing a letter they sent to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Tuesday, Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the reprogramming request could lead to Congress stripping the Pentagon of its ability to move funds around.

“This basically says that Congress doesn’t spend the money, the president does,” said Smith, the panel’s chairman, calling the shift of funds to pay for a southern border wall “very, very damaging” to the Pentagon. “The message it sends is that the Pentagon’s got plenty of money.”

Thornberry, the committee’s ranking member, drew a distinction from the White House taking $3.6 billion last year to pay for the wall and this year’s request. Some of those funds came out of excess funds in military personnel because the Army didn’t hit its recruiting goals, but this time, Congress has specifically appropriated the funds for other purposes, largely to buy weapons.

“It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of the Congress,” Thornberry said.

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Thornberry said he supported a barrier on the southern border, but had misgivings about the undermining of Congress’ constitutional role in raising forces and funding the national defense.

“The result of this will be greater restrictions on the department’s ability to move money around to meet changing needs, and the country will suffer as a result,” Thornberry said. “I hope I’m proved wrong, but I’m concerned about where this is headed.”

Democrats raised similar objections to last year’s reprogramming but were unable to thwart it, either via a policy provision in the annual defense policy bill, or by voting to end the president’s national emergency declaration along the southern border.

Esper, testifying alongside Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in support of the administration’s $740.5 billion budget request for national security in fiscal 2021, had to walk a fine line.

Push back too hard and he risks enraging Congress, which funds the Defense Department. But he also has to show support for the policies of the president who appointed him.

“To deal with that emergency, we need a barrier system,” Esper said. “I know that (reprogramming) is legally available to us.”

Although other Republicans took issue with the reprogramming, none raised the constitutional concerns voiced by Thornberry.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., noting that the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy calls for defense budgets that grow faster than inflation, expressed disapproval over reducing the funds available for defense. And Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., said he would have preferred that Congress had been consulted on where to find the money to pay for the wall. But both stopped well short of Thornberry’s level of criticism.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who is the top Republican on the strategic forces subcommittee, rose to Esper’s defense. Turner blamed Congress for not properly funding the wall.

“It is Congress’ failure to act, not your actions, that is resulting in dollars being taken from the Defense Department budget,” he said. “We all know you don’t have too much money.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-N.M., pressed Esper on whether another president could raid Pentagon accounts after declaring a national emergency over climate change. Esper declined to speculate, saying he was not a lawyer.

Reps. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and John Garamendi, D-Calif., pointedly reminded Esper that the Pentagon is required by law to submit its 30-year shipbuilding plan to Congress alongside its budget request. Two weeks later, they have still not seen the Navy’s planning document, they said.

Esper said the report had not yet provided to him, and he needed to review it before providing it to lawmakers.

“At the appropriate point in time, I will share with you what I believe our future force structure should look like,” Esper said.

This response seemed to rile Garamendi, who told Esper he was not “in line with the law.”

“You are headed for a major brawl with the committee,” Garamendi said.

Esper and Milley stressed that the budget supported the National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon’s 2018 document that refocused the military on preparing for potential high-end conflicts with China and Russia.

Thornberry praised the budget request for reflecting that strategy.

“The strategy is imperfect, and the budget is imperfect,” he said. “But, there is at least a concept around which we can make spending decisions.”

Smith, however, criticized the request for its lack of clarity, and said the strategy needed to reflect the limited amount of resources available.

“What is the strategy? I think we are still struggling to get a clear, coherent strategy in place,” he said. “Right now, we have ambitious goals that outstrip our means. And that means in too many cases, we are asking people serving in the military to do things that we don’t have the resources to do.”

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© 2020 CQ-Roll Call

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