WASHINGTON — Members of the House Armed Services Committee rebuked top Pentagon officials Tuesday for shattering years of protocol by unilaterally transferring money approved for one set of spending needs to fund construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The condemnation was bipartisan and precise after the Pentagon announced Monday night that it was shifting $1 billion from the Pentagon anti-drug-trafficking funding — shifted from other Pentagon accounts — to build 57 miles of border fencing, roads and lighting in what it called “drug-smuggling corridors.”
“Changing decades of reprogramming practice is going to have difficult consequences for the whole government, but especially for the Department of Defense,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the senior Republican on the committee, said.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee chair, said one of many “gentleman’s agreement” is that the Pentagon will not shift funds without getting “the relevant approval of the four relevant committees,” which did not happen Monday.
“You are not asking for our permission. You understand the result of that is the appropriations committees will no longer give the Pentagon reprogramming (the power to shift funds) power,” Smith said.
Before the hearing, Smith sent a letter to the Pentagon denying the request. The impact of that denial is unclear, given that the Pentagon is responding to an emergency declaration from President Donald Trump.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, appearing before the committee, said he recognized the possible long-term implication of the Pentagon’s stomping on the committee’s appropriations protocol — what he called “unilaterally reprogramming.
“It was a very difficult discussion, and we understand the significant downsides of losing what amounts to a privilege,” Shanahan said.
David Norquist, the Pentagon comptroller, told the committee that the $1 billion would come from Army funds that were approved to pay for new soldiers.
Since the Army is failing to meet its recruitment goals for 2019, “funds that would’ve gone to pay those (new) soldiers had they been onboard is no longer needed for that purpose,” he said.
Smith was not assuaged.
“Whatever one feels about the border wall, to look at the Pentagon as sort of a piggybank — slush fund — where you can simply go in and grab money for something when you need it, really undermines the credibility of the entire DoD budget,” Smith said. “Funding a border wall out of the Department of Defense is also unbelievably irresponsible.”