President Donald Trump’s $5 billion demand for a U.S.-Mexico border wall has held up the entire spending wrap-up for fiscal 2019. Yet Trump still hasn’t put the details of that request on paper in any official capacity, a departure from precedent that is in keeping with this president’s unconventional style.
The fact Congress hasn’t gotten a formal letter to change the border ask seems technical. But it has set a stage for debate where no one’s arguing on the same terms. And this has arguably let lawmakers and the White House escape a broader debate on the substance by simultaneously referring to an outdated budget request or a dollar figure that doesn’t exist formally on paper.
“This literally begs a public explanation,” said Jim Dyer, a former GOP clerk and chief of staff for the House Appropriations Committee.
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To recap: The president’s February budget request for fiscal 2019 asked Congress for $1.6 billion for construction of 65 miles of “new border wall system in southern Texas.” Subsequently, Homeland Security officials indicated the White House was looking for $2.2 billion in a hearing on Capitol Hill, which House GOP lawmakers included in a larger immigration and border security package that was defeated in that chamber.
Then, Trump floated the higher $5 billion figure in a meeting with congressional Republicans in June, which became what passes for a formal request. But it was never accompanied by a “budget amendment” submitted to Congress, which is the typical practice for administrations after they identify new funding needs during the year.
“As a former staff director, I have a fixation on something like this and my fixation is as follows: After you send your budget request to the Hill, if you want more money, then you send an amended request. There’s no reason you can’t do it. It should be the most routine of things,” Dyer said. “If I were sitting up there on the Appropriations Committee, I would demand a budget amendment. I might even have a hearing on it.”
The lack of detailed justification was a departure even from the Trump administration’s own prior practices. In March 2017, the newly ensconced administration sent up to Capitol Hill a request to add $33 billion in fiscal 2017 funds to spending bills under negotiation, mostly for defense but also for border protection. At the same time, the request asked Congress to cut $18 billion from other nondefense discretionary accounts, which lawmakers rejected.
In April, the White House submitted a formal request to add fiscal 2019 funds to its initial budget in keeping with the bipartisan budget deal reached in February.
Upping the ante
Some GOP appropriators are finding it difficult to back the full $5 billion request without seeing a detailed justification. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said last week she supports the $1.6 billion that senators included in their bipartisan Homeland measure. She said she doesn’t know why $5 billion is needed for the fiscal year that ends next September.
“The administration asked for [$]1.6 [billion]; we gave them [$]1.6 [billion] and they upped the ante,” she said.
“It’s irresponsible what he’s doing, and it’s holding all the other bills hostage, and he hasn’t even given us the information we need on the border wall,” added New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Murkowski’s Democratic counterpart on the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. That fiscal 2019 measure is mired in a conference committee on four spending bills that got held back from finalizing an agreement before lawmakers recessed for the final stretch of the midterm campaign.
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation of why the budget request hasn’t been amended. It also did not elaborate on a tweet from the president Monday that suggested more money for the wall could save taxpayers money.
We would save Billions of Dollars if the Democrats would give us the votes to build the Wall. Either way, people will NOT be allowed into our Country illegally! We will close the entire Southern Border if necessary. Also, STOP THE DRUGS!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman distributed a fact sheet last week that sought to provide some details about the $5 billion and why it’s necessary. She wrote that when combined with funding provided over the past two fiscal years, it would allow the agency to “have construction completed or underway” by the end of fiscal 2019 for more than 120 miles of wall along the Southwest border, and in total the new money would allow for construction of more than 330 miles.
“We are committed to building wall and building wall quickly,” she said. “We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall. Instead, under this President we are building a wall that is 30-feet high.”
Some GOP lawmakers including Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby don’t find the lack of a formal amendment to the wall figure to be very unusual.
“Not really, no, no. They all change, they talk, you know the budget request, and then they change, and we change too,” the Alabama Republican said Thursday. Nonetheless, Shelby is trying to walk a delicate line between the president and members of his own party, and the Democrats whose votes he will need. He’s suggested a $2.5 billion down payment this year and the rest of the funds provided in an advance appropriation for fiscal 2020, but Democrats so far aren’t biting.
Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said it didn’t matter that Trump’s request is informal, and the House GOP has already included the $5 billion in its version of the Homeland Security bill, which he said serves to formalize it in a sense. “I’m not going to worry about it,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
But Cole conceded a lack of clarity with the numbers has been a problem in the immigration debate.
“I’m not going to presume to advise the president on that,” Cole said of the request details. “But look, I don’t think he’s got anyone to bargain with him in good faith.”