Reprogramming Opens Rift Between Pentagon, House Lawmakers

A soldier with the 610th Engineer Support Company prepares a roll of concertina wire to be attached to the border wall at San Luis, Ariz., on March 14, 2019. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Ben Navratil.

The House Armed Services Committee is clashing with the Pentagon over a decision to shift up to $1 billion in Army funding to pay for fencing along the southern US border, a move the department decided to make even though it may mean losing its ability to reprogram money.

On Monday, the Pentagon said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to start working on “57 miles of 18-foot-high pedestrian fencing, constructing and improving roads, and installing lighting within the Yuma and El Paso sectors of the border” to block drugs from coming into the country from Mexico, in support of President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration last month.

The funds would come from 2019 military personnel money that would go unused because the Army fell short of its recruitment target by at least 9,000 people, Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist said Tuesday at a HASC hearing on the department’s fiscal 2020 budget.

But HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told defense officials their decision wouldn’t fly.

“The committee denies this request,” Smith countered in a March 26 letter to Norquist. “The committee does not approve the proposed use of Department of Defense funds to construct additional physical barriers and roads or install lighting in the vicinity of the United States border.”

At the hearing, Smith noted DOD did not ask for permission when it notified lawmakers of its intent to transfer the money, breaking a longstanding “gentleman’s agreement” to allow the House and Senate Appropriations and Armed Services committees to have a say in the process.

“You understand the result of that, likely, is that the appropriations committee, in particular, would no longer give the Pentagon reprogramming authority,” Smith said. “I think that’s unfortunate because they need it.”

Ranking Member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) agreed with Smith that “changing decades of reprogramming practice is going to have difficult consequences for the whole government, but especially for the Department of Defense.”

It’s unclear whether denying the reprogramming will have any effect on the Pentagon’s decision to move forward. Spokespeople for Smith and the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Shanahan acknowledged the department considered tough trade-offs when deciding how best to support the Department of Homeland Security in enforcing one of President Trump’s top priorities. The “downsides … will hamper us,” he told lawmakers.

Federal officials discussed the pros and cons of pushing through a reprogramming before Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15.

“By unilaterally reprogramming, it was going to affect our ability long-term to be able to do discretionary reprogramming that we had traditionally done in coordination,” Shanahan said at the hearing. “It was a very difficult discussion and we understand the significant downsides of what amounts to a privilege.”

The acting secretary told lawmakers to look at the reprogrammings as possible increments, noting he wanted to get the first installation of $1 billion done before Tuesday’s hearing for transparency’s sake.

The Pentagon could potentially repurpose $2.5 billion for border security, Shanahan said, but anything beyond that would be “too painful” when also trying to maintain readiness and regular operations. He added he doesn’t know what the next funding request could look like.