It’s been an amazing few days for Trumpers. Here is just a small piece of the ecstasy, captured for posterity.
Build That Wall
The Department of Defense is moving $1 billion out of a military personnel fund to be used to construct 57 miles of #TheWall, thereby driving House Democrats absolutely batty in their impotent tantrum to stop it.
On Monday night, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a letter to the Department of Homeland Security informing them that he’d made $1 billion available for wall construction by moving it into a military account for drug enforcement — one of the three pots of money the Trump administration is tapping under its declaration of national emergency. The logic is simple. The military budgets a certain amount of money to fight drug-trafficking every year. This year they’re doing something that will actually stop it (partially).
Leaders of the congressional committees overseeing the Pentagon that same day got notification of $1 billion in “reprogramming” — shifting funds from one government agency or account to another — from the military-personnel fund to the drug-enforcement fund.
House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-WA) threw a formal hissy fit regarding the letter today: “The committee does not approve the use of Department of Defense funds to construct additional physical barriers,” he wrote.
But the letter was meaningless.
As Smith himself acknowledged while questioning Shanahan in an oversight hearing today, the request was unilateral — it wasn’t sent to Smith and Congress for approval, and it’s not something they have the ability to stop. It was done via legal order from the Commander-in-Chief, who has this little known niche job called “keeping Americans safe.” The only thing that congressional Democrats can do now is to reduce the Pentagon’s ability to shift money around going forward — and you best believe that’s exactly what they’re going to try. As soon as they’re done investigating whether Trump farted in an elevator in 1982, of course.
In order for Trump to take the full $2.5 billion he promised out of the Pentagon drug-enforcement fund, though, some money had to be put into that fund from elsewhere.
Congress is in charge of setting budget levels for the executive branch for a given year, but reprogramming allows the executive branch to move some of those funds around if the need arises. That’s what Al Gore might call an “inconvenient truth.” Whether the executive branch is expected to ask the approval of relevant congressional committees, or just notify them, varies from department to department — and depends on how much money is being used and what it’s being asked for.
Technically, the law doesn’t allow Congress to force the Department of Defense not to reprogram money. But it’s been standard operating procedure — what Smith called a “gentleman’s agreement” — that the DOD will ask Congress’ blessing before moving large amounts of money around. In fact, the form sent to Congress on Monday is technically supposed to be used for cases in which “prior approval” of Congress is needed.
Sorry fellas, we’re experiencing an invasion at the border. The time for “gentleman’s agreements” is long gone.
In this case, though, Smith acknowledged to Shanahan today that “you are not asking for our permission” or even a blessing; the DOD was going forward with the transfer whether Congress approved of it or not.
Smith described such a decision as unprecedented. But it’s something he and congressional Democrats were worried would happen when Trump signed the emergency declaration. And they made it clear that if it happened, they would take it out on the Pentagon next year — by stripping the department of its power to move any money around at all.
While Congress can’t affect reprogramming authority for 2019, it can reduce the amount of money the Pentagon is allowed to reprogram in fiscal year 2020. And House Democrats on the Appropriations and Armed Services Committees have promised to “zero out” reprogramming if the wall money was transferred without their approval.
See folks? The law can only stand so long as it benefits Democrats. God forbid it benefit those without political connections.
Shanahan knew this was coming. He told Smith that it had been a “difficult decision” to authorize the $1 billion and risk angering Congress, but that the circumstances required it. I guess when faced with the decision of pissing off congressional Democrats and giving our border patrol a fighting chance, Shanahan chose to shun the Swamp.
Now that’s refreshing.
The fight for the wall has been a #BigFat mess, but progress has been made. It’s not where we want to be and, yes, there have been plenty of mistakes made on our side, but progress is being made. Let’s take a look at what has been done thus far:
- Past appropriations bills: $1.7 billion, 108 miles. Congress gave PDT $341 million for barriers in 2017, and $1.375 billion in 2018 (though Dims at the time stressed that such money didn’t count as “wall money” because it was specifically dedicated to replacement of existing barriers). Most of the 2017 projects have been completed — as of December, 34 of 40 miles had been built. DHS is currently working through its project load from the 2018 funding, with at least one project (levy wall in the Rio Grande Valley) under construction; others under contract; and a few set to be contracted before the end of this fiscal year. The $1.375 billion appropriated by Congress in the February bill extending 2019 funding has not yet been doled out.
- The Treasury Forfeiture Fund: $600 million. Of the three executive-branch funds that PDT decided to use to get billions more in wall funding beyond what Congress appropriated, the easiest one to raid was the Treasury Forfeiture Fund — which collects the money federal law enforcement agents seize from defendants (and the proceeds of auctions for other seized assets like boats and ostrich leather jackets). Congress uses the forfeiture fund to pay for things all the time (over $12 billion has been tapped by Congress over the last decade, according to a Roll Call analysis) and it didn’t require an emergency declaration for PDT do to the same. The Donald is reportedly seeking to take $242 million (the amount of the fund’s 2019 surplus over what Treasury expected to take in) out of the account now, and another $358 million later after more assets have been seized. But he doesn’t appear to have done this yet.
- Pentagon drug-enforcement funds: $2.5 billion. This is the account that the Pentagon has just used for its initial $1 billion outlay. It’s expected to use another $1.5 billion this year, though it’s not clear whether that money will also be transferred from its military-personnel fund to the drug fund or whether it will come from elsewhere.
- Military construction funds: $3.8 billion. This is the most contentious/controversial of the national-emergency moves — and the one the Trump administration is slow-walking the most. For one thing, there are constitutional challenges as to whether it’s appropriate for the military-construction budget to be used for the wall — part of the administration’s court battle over the emergency declaration (which hasn’t yet resulted in any actual impediments to Trump’s plans). As things stand, the Trump admin seems to have a pretty decent case. As PDT is so fond of saying, “Let’s see what happens.”
Just as importantly, though, there are political considerations — the Pentagon will have to cut other planned construction projects, and risk the anger of the members of Congress where those projects would be happening. The Pentagon has released a list of projects that might be cut to free up $3.8 billion in wall money, but none of them are supposed to happen until 2020 — and the administration’s 2020 budget request would make up the money. In other words, if Congress gives the Pentagon what it wants in 2020, it won’t have to cut anything to pay for the wall. But that’s unlikely. Dims are going to find every possible person who’s missing out on federal funds in order to build this wall and put them on a billboard.
- The 2020 budget request: $8.6 billion. Let’s face it; this isn’t gonna happen. It’s based on what the White House deems necessary to have 722 miles of barriers in place in time for the end of fiscal year 2020, but there’s no visually no chance House Dims would give him that much, not without giving up something serious in return. Last time, we allowed them to draw up our asylum policy. God knows, we can’t allow that again.
The executive branch really seems to be backing up PDT on his mission to build the wall however he must. Granted, they are the executive branch and they are ruled by the president, but as we’ve seen from the bureaucracy over the last couple years, compliance should never be assumed. This is a government that has tried to expel PDT as a foreign object since he took office. It’s good to see folks willing to pick fights with congressional Dims in order to enact the president’s agenda.
No one wants this piecemeal method of building the wall, but it’s a fight we have to take on. Maybe with the implosion of the Russia narrative, the increasing lunacy of Dims in general and an economy that shows no signs of slowing, PDT can build enough political capital to get this done the easy way from here on out.
Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but you know what they say — where there’s a will, there’s a way.