WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump can immediately grab $21 billion in military construction funds should he declare a national emergency in his quest to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, congressional experts said Thursday.
The money available to Trump is appropriations that Congress passed to build projects — ranging from those not yet started to projects already underway — but are “unobligated.” That refers to contracts for projects — or part of a specific one — that have not been awarded, even if work in underway on other aspects of the project.
Once a contract is awarded, the money cannot be snared under terms of a national emergency, the congressional experts said. The details of how the process works were provided on background by congressional aides under agreement that they would not be identified by name, chamber or location.
Military construction funds are appropriated for use over a five-year period. That means Trump has access to some funds dating back to fiscal year 2015.
The $21-billion figure is significantly larger than the $2 billion figure Pentagon officials have suggested to reporters as the amount that the White House could target.
The largest chunk of money is from the current fiscal year, FY 2019. None of the $10 billion in military construction funds for this year has been obligated.
However, a national emergency could impact projects already underway. One example cited was the construction of a $1 billion military hospital in Germany. The hospital is half complete so if the money taken by Trump includes that project it will remain unfinished, the congressional aides said.
“The law does not say he (the president) has to tell us what project but you can be sure we will be asking that question,” one of the congressional aides said.
It will be left to the defense secretary to sort through the projects to decide where to yank the money, the congressional aides said.
The congressional aides said what constitutes military construction — and thus eligible for money to be spent — is not clear. They were not certain if the president’s wall would qualify. “That will have to be worked out in court,” one said.
Trump also could attempt to use money residing in the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers. However, that would require the White House to go after funds by individual project — a move certain to increase the ire of members of Congress where those projects are located.
“He would have to go project-by-project, and I could see how that could be dicey,” one of the aides said.
The amount of funds that could be available from Army Corp projects was not immediately available.
A third source of funds that could be available to the president would come from drug enforcement operations. That amount is less than $1 billion, the aides said.
Although Trump could claim the military construction money immediately, it would not start flowing right away. Even without a court challenge, no construction on a wall could begin until environmental studies are completed and land is purchased from private owners.
The aides said the money could also be used to pay for court actions as well as eminent domain land seizures.