Democratic lawmakers expressed outrage Wednesday over President Donald Trump's plan to take $1 billion from the Army's personnel account to help pay for a border wall, a move the senators say can only hurt military readiness.
During a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, accused the president of "building his wall at the expense of the America's military."
"On Monday, Congress learned that the $1 billion in excess Army pay and benefits will not go back into the Army and other military priorities but will go to build the president's wall," Durbin said, adding that he is also concerned that the president wants to "cancel $3.6 billion in military construction projects that the Army and other services asked for last year" to fund the wall.
"Meanwhile, we have no answers on how the armed forces are going to pay for pressing readiness issues this year, like repairing bases after natural disasters [and] paying the cost of deploying soldiers and the National Guard to our border."
Durbin asked Army leaders testifying at the hearing how the service intends "to pay for the $350 million for border activities that were not anticipated."
Army Secretary Mark Esper said the $1 billion "came out of surplus personnel money that was not used in the fiscal 2019 budget and will not affect our plan in terms of readiness and modernization."
"Going forward ... we will have to assess how we are going to pay for [the border activities]," he said. "Our comptroller is working up those numbers, and we would have to come back to do a reprogramming into those accounts."
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Esper whether the Army has started prioritizing the previously appropriated military constructions projects that will likely be cut.
Esper said he had directed the Army staff to begin prioritizing a list of projects based on readiness and power projection.
Appearing to grow more agitated, Schatz asked how the effort was progressing.
"We are waiting as though we are not appropriators, as though we didn't already decide this, as though it's not our constitutional obligation to do the prioritization," he said. "So at a minimum, it seems to me we should be involved in this process and that it shouldn't be a black box that is dropped down on us."
Esper told Schatz that he has ordered his staff to expedite the process.
The senator then asked whether the Army would consult with the committee.
Esper replied, "If I am permitted to by [the office of the secretary of Defense], I certainly will."
Schatz warned Esper that his answers were fraying a relationship between the Army and the committee that has been based on trust.
"This makes it very difficult for you to come to us and say, 'All of these needs are high priority. They must be funded for readiness and other things and for the good of the United States Army,' when as it turns out there seems to be $1 billion left over," he said, expressing concern that the service is not using that money for "U.S. Army Pacific's priorities that they just submitted to big Army."
"They are saying, 'We need something for Korea. We need something for the Strykers in Alaska. And we need a bunch of things in Hawaii, and we need stuff throughout the region,'" Schatz continued.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, wanted further explanation of the Army's stance on the Defense Department's plans for "raiding" $1 billion intended for pay and benefits to fund the president's wall.
"We hear so frequently from the services about problems in readiness and modernization ... and this committee has worked very hard to help you address those problems because, at the end of the day, our service members are at risk. So if this money is truly not needed where it is currently budgeted, would this money not be better spent investing in our soldiers and families, improving their training or modernizing their equipment?" she asked.
Esper re-emphasized that the $1 billion was part of last year's personnel account that was not used because the Army missed its recruiting goal for the active force by 6,500 soldiers.
"We could not meet [our] end-strength goal of 487,000, so that was allocated to soldiers that frankly didn't exist," he said. "We turned that back into OSD ... and the return of that money came with the recommendations that said 'the FY 2019 budget approved by Congress met our readiness and modernization needs, however, we would like to keep some of that money to further improve readiness and modernization.'"
Murray also told Esper she is concerned about future military construction projects in her state, which could be cut to pay for the wall.
"I do know you get very limited military construction money, so I expect the Army would not have approved the construction of the new confinement facility at [Joint Base Lewis-McChord] or the tactical equipment maintenance facility at Yakima if they were not truly important," she said. "So I want to ask, are any of these projects less important to military readiness than building a wall on the southern border?"
Esper said he will have to assess all the projects and their "relative value amongst one another."
"With regard to your question of their value relative to the border wall, that's a decision beyond me," he said. "As I said earlier, my responsibility is to prioritize projects from an Army perspective. The acting secretary of defense has a much broader perspective, and the White House has a much broader perspective from there. ... We follow direction."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.