In February, Congress passed a standalone defense spending bill that breaks free from the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. It approved $700 billion for 2018 and $716 billion for 2019, and the Department of Defense intends to use the first predictable defense budget in years to rebuild legacy equipment, upsize training and maintenance programs, and invest in new systems including aircraft carriers and missile defense interceptors. With funding for DOD confirmed and locked in, Congress turned to a larger appropriations bill to fund the government through September 2018, and when the dust settled in March, they had only approved $1.6 billion to spend on fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
What’s more, that $1.6 billion is designated for rebuilding existing fences and constructing “operationally effective designs,” so it can’t be used to build any of President Trump’s new, prototype wall designs. As presidents tend to do when they run into Congressional resistance, President Trump has asked Secretary of Defense Mattis to provide him with options to use some of the $700 billion of DOD funding to begin construction of his $25 billion wall, because the White House believes that the wall is necessary to the defense of the country.
Critics and scholars alike have pointed out that the President won’t be able to find $25 billion available to loot in the defense spending bill, because of limitations on how appropriated money can be used. Most of the limitations, though, stem from threats of lawsuits and negative reactions from members of Congress whose districts will lose out on construction projects run by the military, and President Trump might not be terribly sensitive to those threats. Realistically, the President could obtain somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred million dollars from the defense budget to break ground on his border wall, which by itself would be a rhetorical victory in the eyes of his constituents.
Some critics argue that taking money away from other DOD projects to fund the wall would cripple the military, but Secretary Mattis’ spokesperson sees that as a “bridge too far.” Instead, Secretary Mattis is committed to providing options to the President, and while you might disagree with the specific policy measure the White House is proposing, is it unreasonable to maintain flexibility in the appropriations process of the department charged with responding to a continuously evolving threat environment?
There are already massive chunks of the defense budget that are dedicated to contingency operations, which can easily be moved around (although probably not to wall funding). The standalone defense spending bill itself represents an attempt to untether DOD’s funding from the dysfunction of Congressional budget battles. Which is more important? Predictable budgets, or the flexibility to adjust to changing executive priorities?