In Building the Wall, White House Digs Deeper Hole for the Military

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Late last Friday afternoon, the Pentagon quietly transferred $1.5 billion from the U.S. military to fund construction of the border wall, in addition to the $1 billion it transferred in March.          

This is not a case in which the monies were not available. Every year, a few military programs overestimate their funding needs or have money left over because spending assumptions don’t pan out. In normal times, the Pentagon asks Congress to redirect some of the newly available money through the transfer/reprogramming process. The more immediate problem is that this “unused” $2.5 billion could have been spent on actual military priorities. 

For this recent $1.5 billion transfer, the Department of Defense found money in the couch cushions of several programs. $223 million was taken from military pay accounts because fewer troops signed up for a new retirement system. Another $210 million was available because a DARPA satellite program faced a hiccup, so it didn’t need the money this year. The Pentagon also said it didn’t need $251 million from its program to neutralize existing chemical weapon stocks—a claim that lawmakers should view skeptically given the program’s well-known cost overruns and schedule delays. $681 million was taken mainly from the Afghan Security Forces Fund, which pays for developing the Afghan military and police. The Pentagon claims a "contract review" revealed that the original funding for the program was too high. The "unused" funding amounts to 12% of the program's yearly total—a somewhat unusual level of savings for a contract review that, again, lawmakers might want to take a look at.

But what really sparked headlines was the Pentagon’s movement of $134 million from a few weapons accounts, including the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile program and a high-profile combat surveillance aircraft. According to Pentagon documentation, these programs didn’t need their planned funding because small portions of their work have been slightly delayed. In other words, they’ll need more funding next year instead of this year.  

Overall, the pots of money in which the Pentagon found “unused” funding are fairly standard. Budget wonks see hundreds of these examples every year in reprogrammings and congressional program adjustments. They are part and parcel of the yearly churn of what might be the most complex budget in human history.

The problem isn’t that there’s “unused” money lying around. The problem is that there’s an equal or greater number of unforeseen Pentagon funding needs than originally expected for this year. One obvious example: The Pentagon still needs at least $1.8 billion for immediate cleanup costs at three military bases devastated by Hurricanes Florence and Michael eight months ago. And the military gave Congress a list of more than $10 billion in "unfunded priorities" that weren't in the official budget this year but are nevertheless important to carry out the national defense strategy. The chief of Pacific Command, for instance, noted that the official budget did not include "immediate and necessary resources” he needs to keep up with Chinese and North Korean adventurism.

Because “unused” defense funding has been diverted to the border wall, it’s not available for these real and pressing military priorities. And because this funding did not come from within the same accounts, it also used up more of the Pentagon’s finite “transfer authority.” Department of Defense financial managers are now left with only 51% of their normal general transfer authority and 36% of its transfer authority for paying for ongoing conflicts. This will continue to hamper the military’s ability to respond to unanticipated military developments as the year goes on.

The worst effect of transferring military funding for the border wall may be yet to come. This second transfer exacerbates fears that Congress will rescind crucial funding flexibility in the future. By forcing the military to pay for the border wall in the face of Congress’ decision to not authorize that funding, the White House has broken the tacit agreement between Congress and the Pentagon that the latter’s reprogramming and transfer authority will be used in good faith to meet the military’s needs. Just today, House Democrats released their fiscal year 2020 military appropriations bill. It responds to the White House's use of the transfer authority by reducing transfer authority by 75 percent. Under this bill, $4 billion in general transfer authority drops to $1 billion, and conflict transfer authority shrinks from $2 billion to $500 million.

In effect, the military is being punished for the sins of the White House in dismissing core constitutional authorities of the Congress: the power of the purse and the power to fund the military.

Rick Berger is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on the defense budget. Previously, he was a professional staff member at the Senate Budget Committee where he worked on defense, foreign affairs, and veteran issues.

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