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Esper approves use of $3.6 billion in Pentagon construction funds for US-Mexico border wall

A military vehicle faces east at the border wall in Sasabe, Ariz., Feb. 7, 2019.

TAWANNA STARKS/U.S. ARMY

By COREY DICKSTEIN AND ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 3, 2019

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday approved the transfer of $3.6 billion of Pentagon money meant for military construction projects around the world to pay for 11 barrier construction and improvement projects on the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

The funds would build 175 miles of barrier on land owned by the Defense Department, other federal agencies and private property, senior defense officials said Tuesday. Most of that new barrier would replace either existing wall or so-called vehicular barriers, areas along the border where military vehicles have been set up as obstacles, said Kenneth Rapuano, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security.

The decision means the Pentagon can pull funding from as many as 127 planned construction projects that had been approved by Congress for bases in the United States and abroad to fund instead the new border projects under President Donald Trump’s February emergency declaration, said Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s comptroller. Contracts to build the impacted projects have not yet been awarded and construction on them was not planned to start in fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1, she said.

The $3.6 billion includes two roughly equal pools of funds – overseas construction projects and projects planned for bases inside the United States and its territories. McCusker said the Pentagon would pull funding first from those planned overseas projects, which total $1.8 billion.

Pentagon officials on Tuesday declined to release publicly the list of projects that would be impacted by the decision. Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told reporters that the list could be released as early as Wednesday, once lawmakers and foreign embassies are provided copies.

McCusker said the list is based on the original criteria that defense officials said they would consider when choosing from which projects to transfer funding. That criteria included not taking funds from projects for military housing, barracks or dormitories and any project contracted for construction before the end of fiscal year 2019, which is Sept. 30.

She said projects that lose funding could still move forward if Congress approves them again, a refrain defense officials have been adamant about since Trump first announced he would move Pentagon funding to pay for border barrier construction.

“If Congress were to backfill the requests none [of the projects] would be delayed,” McCusker said. “They are definitely not being canceled.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill blasted the move as using funds needed for troops to aid a Trump political goal. Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, said Trump was attempting to take power away from Congress by moving Pentagon funds to pay for parts of the border wall – the building of which has been a central theme of his campaign and presidency.

“Clearly, this administration is trying to circumvent congressional authority and this ill-advised attempt should be legally challenged and struck down by the courts,” Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday in a statement. “If it stands, future presidents will make similar end-runs to try and tap defense dollars for anything a president wants to label a ‘national emergency.' ”

But Hoffman argued the decision was necessary to support the roughly 5,000 American troops – about 3,000 active duty and 2,000 National Guard – now serving on the southern border in support of Customs and Border Patrol officers. He said Esper approved the funding transfers on the advice of Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after the Defense Department determined that building the barrier would be “appropriate and legal,” because it would directly support military troops, who perform duties including surveillance, vehicle maintenance, ferrying CBP officers around the border and busing migrants to CBP stations.

Construction could begin within about 100 days and would likely start with barrier wall on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, McCusker said. The 11 projects span all four of the states along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Hoffman on Tuesday defended the Pentagon’s decision to delay providing the public with the list of projects that would be defunded by the plan, saying the Defense Department was “trying to be very respectful of Congress.”

In March, the Defense Department released a 21-page list of more than 400 projects that could be targeted for defunding to pay for border wall construction. The projects' values totaled about $12.9 billion.

However, only about half of the projects listed met the criteria that Defense Department officials said they were considering for funding.

Examples of projects at risk included a child development center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, a middle school at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and an addition to the ambulatory care center at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Puerto Rico is especially vulnerable. Nearly 80 percent of the Army National Guard’s $574 million in construction funding on the list is in that U.S. territory. Those projects include a maneuver area training equipment site, a readiness center and a power substation at Camp Santiago. There are similar projects at risk in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The entire process has angered lawmakers, who initially hounded the Defense Department for a list of projects. Once they received the list, they argued it was confusing to release a list where half the projects were irrelevant to the discussion.

The White House’s proposed $718 billion Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2020 included $3.6 billion in an emergency fund to backfill money taken from 2019 construction projects for the wall as well as an additional $3.6 billion marked for potential new construction at the southern border. The House and Senate have passed defense budgets, but need to reconcile their differences during the fall session to draft a compromise on the spending plan.


The Defense Department is already paying $2.5 billion for about 150 miles of border wall through a drug interdiction fund, authorized earlier this year by then acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan. The Army Corps of Engineers have awarded all but 20 miles worth of those construction contracts, because those final miles were approved by Esper last week.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori
 

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