WASHINGTON -- Top members of the House Armed Services Committee assailed Pentagon leaders Wednesday, warning that the administration's reprogramming of $3.8 billion of Defense Department money for a border wall could damage its relationship with Congress.
Echoing a letter they sent to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Tuesday, Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the reprogramming request could lead to Congress stripping the Pentagon of its ability to move funds around.
"This basically says that Congress doesn't spend the money, the president does," said Smith, the panel's chairman, calling the shift of funds to pay for a southern border wall "very, very damaging" to the Pentagon. "The message it sends is that the Pentagon's got plenty of money."
Thornberry, the committee's ranking member, drew a distinction from the White House taking $3.6 billion last year to pay for the wall and this year's request. Some of those funds came out of excess funds in military personnel because the Army didn't hit its recruiting goals, but this time, Congress has specifically appropriated the funds for other purposes, largely to buy weapons.
"It is substituting the judgment of the administration for the judgment of the Congress," Thornberry said.
Thornberry said he supported a barrier on the southern border, but had misgivings about the undermining of Congress' constitutional role in raising forces and funding the national defense.
"The result of this will be greater restrictions on the department's ability to move money around to meet changing needs, and the country will suffer as a result," Thornberry said. "I hope I'm proved wrong, but I'm concerned about where this is headed."
Democrats raised similar objections to last year's reprogramming but were unable to thwart it, either via a policy provision in the annual defense policy bill, or by voting to end the president's national emergency declaration along the southern border.
Esper, testifying alongside Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in support of the administration's $740.5 billion budget request for national security in fiscal 2021, had to walk a fine line.
Push back too hard and he risks enraging Congress, which funds the Defense Department. But he also has to show support for the policies of the president who appointed him.