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Most of Pentagon billions moved to border wall not recoverable

Of the $14 billion Trump diverted to border wall construction, $9.9 billion was from the military. Very little of that will return to Pentagon coffers.

Normandy fencing fills a gap in the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on April 12, 2021.
Normandy fencing fills a gap in the border wall on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, N.M., on April 12, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Most of the nearly $10 billion that the Trump administration diverted from the armed services to build barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border will never be seen again, Pentagon and congressional officials confirmed Friday.

That includes some of the money diverted from military construction funds and all the money former President Donald Trump had reprogrammed from a variety of other Pentagon initiatives, such as National Guard equipment, a new amphibious assault ship for the Navy, F-35 fighter jets for the Marine Corps, Osprey tilt-rotors for carrying forces to battle and C-130J transport planes.

Betty McCollum, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told panel members at the end of a hearing Friday that they are “not going to be getting any money returned” from Defense subcommittee appropriations that were diverted to border projects in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. 

Nearly $10 billion gone from Pentagon

McCollum did not elaborate at the hearing. She said the panel’s members will soon be receiving a memo from the staff director explaining the situation. 

But a House aide and a Pentagon official told CQ Roll Call why so few of the diverted defense dollars are still available. 

All told, about $14 billion was spent on the border barriers through the budgets of the Pentagon and the departments of Homeland Security and Treasury.

Most of it was not appropriated by Congress but was instead redirected from other programs that had been enacted into law. 

Of that $14 billion, fully $9.9 billion came from the Pentagon through two funding streams in fiscal years 2019 and 2020. 

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In the first stream, $3.6 billion was moved from military construction projects at home and abroad, including many in Eastern European countries facing down threats from Russia.

In the second, $6.3 billion was moved from other defense projects — including several  high-profile weapons favored by lawmakers and supported by the brass. 

The $6.3 billion was routed through a Pentagon counterdrug account under a law that allowed money to be moved from that account to other agencies that are deemed to be fighting the drug trade.

Of course, to the extent money has already been spent on border projects, it would not be available anyway. That is the case with most of the projects funded by the counterdrug money, the Pentagon official said. So not much money from that funding stream is likely to be left over for that reason alone. 

The second reason the $6.3 billion is no longer accessible, he and the House aide said, is that the counterdrug funds expired after one year, meaning they have not been available since September to be used for any other purpose. 

A couple of billion dollars left

As for the $3.6 billion that was taken from military construction programs, only about half the border construction work that was planned to be completed with that money was done before President Joe Biden froze the work in January, the Pentagon official said.

So approximately half or more of that money may still be available.

But that does not amount to much, relatively speaking.

[Congress poised to force historic change in military justice system]

In sum, of the $9.9 billion taken from the Pentagon for the border, none of the money overseen by the congressional Appropriations subcommittees on Defense is still available. And only a few billion in military construction funds overseen by the subcommittee on Milcon-VA is left.

On April 30, the Pentagon and White House announced that unspent border money would be recouped. But the details about how few dollars were available was not explained. And the exact figures are still being worked out, officials said.

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