Appearing on Capitol Hill in his second attempt to defend the $718 billion defense budget, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stood by the proposed use of devote Pentagon funds to help build President Trump’s border wall in the face of strong criticism from House Democrats.
Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, blasted the move to use part of the $165 billion “overseas contingency operations” budget — a pot of money originally earmarked to fund U.S. military operations abroad and to cover unanticipated missions and costs — to construct Mr. Trump’s wall along the Mexican border.
The size of the overseas contingency funding pot has exploded in recent years and now includes money for “base” Defense Department expenses, leading critics to charge that it is being used to skirt spending caps on the regular defense budget and go around Congress.
The budget “uses overseas contingency operations fund as a slush fund … that is breathtakingly irresponsible,” Mr. Smith said. telling Mr. Shanahan the move “undermines the credibility of the entire [Defense Department] budget.”
Mr. Shanahan, appearing with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and David Norquist, the department’s comptroller, defended the use of the funds, insisting that “military construction on the border will not come at the expense of our people, our readiness, or our modernization.”
Some $3.6 billion for military construction projects originally in the FY 2019 budget will be shifted to the next budget, Mr. Shanahan added, “so we can resource border barrier projects under emergency declaration this year, [and] in case additional emergency funding is needed for the border.”
However, he explained “decisions have not yet been made concerning which border barrier projects will be funded,” through the military construction funds.
But Mr. Smith argued that “the Pentagon is not allowed to simply move money from one account to another. … You are not asking for our permission.”
President Trump wants to increase the defense fiscal year 2020 budget by just under 3 percent, an increase that has received a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill from Republicans who anticipated an increase closer to 5 percent, and many Democrats who prefer more spending on social programs.
Mr. Smith also called for an audit of the Pentagon’s use of funding in recent years, and told Mr. Shanahan, “we need to know where you’re spending your money.”
“We need the Pentagon to be spending the money more wisely than it has been,” Mr. Smith said. “Too much money has been wasted at the Pentagon.”
Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the committee’s ranking Republican, seconded Mr. Smith’s concerns about the structure of the Pentagon budget, saying the contingency funding problem began under President Obama and ” has caused enormous problems for the [Pentagon] and the men and women who serve.”
“We should not take [Defense Department] resources and use them for other purposes,” Mr. Thornberry said, but added, “I know that is not a decision you made.”
Mr. Shanahan, who is seen as auditioning for a permanent nomination for defense secretary, is expected to face sharp questioning at the hearing on the Pentagon’s transgender ban and a recent ethics investigation into his ties to Boeing, where he worked for more than three decades before coming to the Pentagon in 2017.