US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on November 11, 2014. Veterans day is celebrated across the country to honor those who...
JEWEL SAMAD

For border barriers, Trump eyes funds from military pay and pensions

Updated

When Donald Trump decided last month that he would circumvent Congress and build a border barrier through an emergency declaration, it wasn’t at all clear where, exactly, he’d get the money. As regular readers know, it’s not as if the Treasury can just cut the president a check for $8 billion. The funds would have to come from somewhere.

And so, administration officials identified some pots of money from which to divert funds. The Washington Post reported a few weeks ago that the plan involved taking $600 million from the Treasury Department’s forfeiture funds account, $3.6 billion from military construction, and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon program for countering drug activities.

That plan quickly fell apart: the Pentagon program for countering drug activities apparently has $85 million in unspent funds. Trump intended to take $2.5 billion from it. Complicating matters, members of Congress – including many Republicans – have told the White House that military construction funds should be off limits.

It’s against this backdrop that administration officials are apparently eyeing an entirely pot of military funds.

The Pentagon is planning to tap $1 billion in leftover funds from military pay and pension accounts to help President Donald Trump pay for his long-sought border wall, a top Senate Democrat said Thursday.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Associated Press, “It’s coming out of military pay and pensions. $1 billion. That’s the plan.”

Durbin said the funds are available because Army recruitment is down and a voluntary early military retirement program is being underutilized.

According to the Illinois Democrat, lawmakers learned about this latest plan during a briefing with Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

It’s worth emphasizing that Durbin’s assessment hasn’t been independently verified, and other lawmakers who attended the briefing haven’t confirmed his assessment. (Than again, they haven’t pushed back against his account, either.)

What’s more, it’s difficult at this stage to gauge the seriousness of the “plan,” such as it is. Was Trump’s DOD simply floating a trial balloon to measure lawmakers’ reaction or is this a meaningful proposal? We don’t yet know for sure, though this should come into sharper focus soon.

That said, something Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said on Twitter stood out for me: “If a Democratic President raided money from service members and military construction projects no one would be talking about anything else for like three months.”

And while that sounds right to me, let’s also not forget that if the Trump administration is serious about this approach, it would bring the White House roughly $1 billion closer to its legally dubious goal, but it’s still short of the $8 billion the president has in mind.