One of the most seasoned military veterans on the House Armed Services Committee has been on the front line of a legislative effort to block President Donald Trump from using billions in funds for military construction to build a wall on the southern border.
Now, he says, he's concerned that the reallocation requests -- and the Pentagon's acquiescence to them -- will make Congress take military money asks less seriously.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, is the vice chairman of the committee and a retired colonel in the Army Reserve. On Jan. 21, he sent a letter, co-signed by 30 other lawmakers, to Defense Secretary Mark Esper demanding more information about a new request for $7.2 billion to build the wall, which would be in addition to the $6.1 billion in diverted to wall construction from military construction and counter-drug efforts in the fiscal 2019 defense budget.
Brown has also worked to publicize military projects in Maryland that have been cut or pushed back by the reallocation, including a $13 million child care center at Joint Base Andrews and some $16.5 million on roadwork at Fort Meade.
During a recent interview at his Capitol Hill office, Brown said his beef is not with Esper on the matter.
"Publicly, there should be no daylight between the secretary of defense and the president," Brown said. " ... So my disappointment isn't with Secretary Esper. I don't expect him to come out and publicly challenge it. ... But it's just so inconsistent with the debates and the discussion that we have, where every penny matters."
Brown said he had fought hard within his Democratic caucus to approve the $738 billion fiscal 2020 defense budget request. A budget agreement last summer set the topline for fiscal 2021 at $740 billion, but Brown said he fears a much more challenging battle this time around.
"If the president follows through with repurposing at the levels that he did last year, it is going to make it much, much more difficult for us to pass an authorization and appropriation -- a budget for defense at the levels that they're going to come in for. ... This is an unforced error for those who believe that, you know, we really do need to invest more in true security and true defense."
Trump is allowed to take the military construction funds, with the approval of the Pentagon, under a law that allows for the repurposing of resources in support of troops deployed under the circumstances of a national emergency. Trump declared the emergency last February after an impasse over the matter resulted in a partial government shutdown lasting more than a month, saying a surge in illegal immigration amounted to a security crisis at the border.
But Brown said the impact on the military -- apart from damage to morale due to delayed and canceled infrastructure projects -- is that requests for resources could be seen as less credible.
"It's just inconsistent that [the DoD] would say, 'Yeah, it's OK. We can make [the border wall funding request] work,' because all you're doing is sending a signal to Congress that, you know, maybe there is a lot of excess in that defense budget," he said. "Maybe there is a little bit of cushion; maybe your request is padding the budget. And that's not fair to the American taxpayers."