The Pentagon is defunding Hurricane Maria recovery projects at military installations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to pay for President Trump’s border wall, and is also taking money from construction projects across Europe designed to help allies deter Russia.
The details of the 127 military construction projects that stand to lose funding to pay $3.6 billion for fencing and barriers on the southern border with Mexico were made public late Wednesday by the Department of Defense.
The list includes projects across 23 U.S. states, three U.S. territories and 20 countries. The decisions about which projects to defund deal a particular blow to Puerto Rico, which stands to see more than $400 million worth of planned projects lose funding. Roughly $770 million of the funding will be taken from projects across allied European nations aimed at helping them deter a possible attack from Russia.
Officially, the Pentagon is saying that the affected projects are “deferred,” but in order for them to go ahead in the future, Congress must again fund them. The Republican-led Senate has agreed to do so in its annual defense policy bill, but the Democratic-led House refused in its version of the bill. The two sides will negotiate a possible compromise in conference, the period when the Senate and House make trades to meld two bills into one before seeking the president’s signature.
If Congress declines to fund the construction projects — or “backfill” them, in the Trump administration’s parlance — they will remain in limbo and effectively be defunded. If they are backfilled in the coming year’s budget, some could proceed without delay, because the Pentagon deliberately chose projects with contract award dates scheduled for future years. The department also chose projects that were already facing delays.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity at a Pentagon briefing because the department declined to hold the event on-the-record, said the Department of Defense is committed to proceeding with the projects and plans to work with Congress to replenish their funding. The official expressed confidence that the funding would be replenished but admitted it wasn’t guaranteed.
The list of projects ranges the gamut, from a space control facility at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado; to weapons training ranges in Mississippi, Oregon, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Alaska; to central heat and power plant boilers that need repairs at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Also on the list is a $9 million plan to replace a working-dog treatment facility at Guantanamo Bay. Nine projects involve renovating and replacing schools for military children on bases in the United States and abroad.
The information about the projects comes a day after Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper formally approved a decision to divert the $3.6 billion to pay for 175 miles of barrier on the southern border with Mexico.
To do so, Esper relied on an obscure part of the U.S. code governing the military. Known as Section 2808, the law allows the defense secretary, during national emergencies requiring the use of the armed forces, to tap military construction funds without sign-off from Congress for projects necessary to support those troops. Esper deemed the border barriers necessary to support the troops Trump deployed to the border to help Customs and Border Protection with an influx of primarily Central American migrant families.
The Pentagon gained access to the authority after Trump declared a national emergency in mid-February, having failed to persuade Congress to provide more money for the project. The dispute led to the longest U.S. government shutdown in history, lasting 35 days in late 2018 and early 2019.
The Trump administration has also used a separate counterdrug law to access $2.5 billion for barrier construction from the Pentagon budget. It is also taking $601 million from the Treasury Department asset forfeiture fund for the barrier construction. On the campaign trail, Trump regularly said Mexico would pay for his border wall project.
Democrats have said Trump’s actions fly in the face of the Constitution, which gives the power of the purse to Congress and not the executive branch. They say his use of obscure laws to get around Congress’s sole authority to allocate money from the federal budget opens the door to subsequent presidents doing an end run around Congress when lawmakers refuse to fund their projects.
The $3.6 billion will pay to replace existing barriers or fences and construct new fence systems.
Some $1.16 billion of the funding will go to construct a second pedestrian fence system where the military’s Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range abuts the border with Mexico and to replace vehicle barriers that separate the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge from Mexico with pedestrian fencing. An additional $40 million will go toward replacing a 1.5-to-2-mile stretch of fencing along the bombing range.
An additional $1.27 billion will be spent on a new fence system for about 52 miles along the Rio Grande outside Laredo, Tex.