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House Armed Services Committee Blocks Shift Of Pentagon Funding For Border Wall


The tug of war between Congress and the Trump administration over border wall funding took a new turn today. After the Pentagon said it would shift a billion dollars of surplus personnel money to wall construction, the House Armed Services Committee blocked it. Meanwhile, NPR's learned the Department of Homeland Security is asking the Pentagon to set up detention facilities at its bases.

To sort through all of this, we're going to speak with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan appeared before the House Armed Services Committee today. Tom, what did he have to say?

BOWMAN: Well, he talked about using a variety of funds from the Pentagon - military construction money, also surplus personnel money. Since they didn't recruit as many soldiers, they have excess money in the personnel account, so a billion dollars will go from that account to wall funding. But normally to do that transfer, Audie, you have to get agreement from the Oversight Committee. So today the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Adam Smith of Washington state, said in a letter to Shanahan, quote, "the committee denies this request."

CORNISH: So why would Shanahan think that he could move the money?

BOWMAN: Well, there's a longstanding agreement that the Pentagon can move money around with the approval of Congress, but Chairman Smith said Trump's national emergency declaration destroyed this trust and enabled this system to work. Chairman Smith asked Shanahan whether the administration understood the risks of bypassing Congress, and Shanahan said they talked about it. Let's listen.


PATRICK SHANAHAN: We said, here are the risks longer-term to the department, and those risks were weighed. And then given a legal order from the commander in chief, we are executing on that order.

CORNISH: So can the president order the Pentagon to spend on the border wall?

BOWMAN: Well, he can for the military construction budget because that budget - in his national declaration of an emergency, he cited that as, we can take money from this account. So that's different from this other money, this personnel money. But Shanahan said for the military construction budget, the money they're taking from there - that's several billion dollars. He said that no money for military housing would be used for the wall. They would save that money and also any projects that have contracts awarded before the end of the fiscal year.

But, Audie, there are about 150 military construction projects totaling 4.3 billion that remain that they could actually tap and use that money. But of course any cancellation of projects could have a big impact on congressional districts, so lawmakers are very, very worried about that.

CORNISH: Finally, you've learned some new details about what the Pentagon is being asked to do on the border - right? - 'cause I understand there are plans to send even more troops.

BOWMAN: That's right. There's a request from the Department of Homeland Security, too, for the Pentagon to set up detention facilities on military bases and facilities. Also they want more troops. There are now 4,000 active duty, 2,000 guard troops there. They're looking for additional troops to monitor these detainees, hundreds more medical personnel to assess and treat detainees.

So clearly this effort - this military effort is expanding at the border. And, Audie, privately, people I talked with at the Pentagon, some senior people - they're - think this is a waste of money. They think this is a wrong way to use active duty troops in particular. But what you keep hearing from them is, it's a legal order by the commander in chief. We'll carry that out. But it doesn't mean they're happy about it.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.