Top lawmakers have denied the Pentagon's request to reprogram up to $1 billion of infrastructure funding on the U.S. southern border in response to a recent request from the Department of Homeland Security.
Less than 24 hours after Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan authorized the request -- which would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin making plans for construction along the border -- chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, sent a letter opposing the reprogrammed funding.
"The committee does not approve the proposed use of Department of Defense funds to construct additional physical barriers and roads or install lighting in the vicinity of the United States border," Smith wrote to Shanahan and David Norquist, DoD undersecretary and budget comptroller.
Shanahan and defense officials said Monday the funds would be used to support DHS' 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 acting secretary said the Pentagon would use the authorities under Title 10 U.S.C. § 284(b)(7), a section of the law pertaining to "support for counterdrug activities and activities to counter transnational organized crime."
The law "gives the Department of Defense the authority to construct roads and fences and to install lighting to block drug-smuggling corridors across international boundaries of the United States in support of counter-narcotic activities of Federal law enforcement agencies," DoD officials said in a statement.
Though the committee did not approve the reallocation of funding, the Pentagon can still move forward on the effort. While consensus between Congress and the Defense Department is not a legal requirement, the tradition of collaboration has deep roots, said Rick Berger, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in defense policy and budget appropriations.
"Smith's denial is a really good part of the messaging piece, because he's highlighting the issue," Berger said in an interview with Military.com on Tuesday. "He's trying to highlight [that] this is a complicated issue, but a really, really important agreement between Congress and the Pentagon."
Reallocating funding is a serious issue, one that Congress usually "puts up guardrails" for, he added.
The committee's message of denial came as Shanahan, Norquist and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford were testifying before its members on Capitol Hill on the Pentagon budget.
In the coming months as lawmakers debate the fiscal 2020 defense and appropriations bills, Democrats are likely to focus on other pressing issues requiring resources, such as addressing shortfalls in military housing; making repairs at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Florence last year; or dealing with Hurricane Michael's devastation of Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
Congress' approval of reallocating funding is "more than a formality, but it's less than a legal requirement. It's really an agreement, and [acts as a] certain degree of trust," Berger said. "This [reprogramming] is breaching that trust."
Berger expects the DoD will likely move forward with the reallocation, but lawmakers may find other ways to hinder the Trump administration's efforts to use military funding for border security.
"Smith is broadening the issue by highlighting that this will set up the second border wall-slash-military funding fight," he said. "Politically, this is more complex, and the people to watch are the Senate Republicans on this … and the authority to spend taxpayer dollars."
Trump's recently released fiscal 2020 budget request included $8.6 billion for the border wall project.
About $3.5 billion of that is set to be reprogrammed from planned military construction projects, and another $2.5 billion from existing counter-narcotics programs.
The Pentagon hasn't said which military construction projects have been targeted, but officials on March 18 released a list of unawarded projects adding up to nearly $6.8 billion that could be diverted for the border effort.
"I assume there will be a lot more talk about this as it goes on," Berger said.