The other money
March 8, 2019

The national emergency President Trump has declared to access $3.6 billion in military construction funds for his border wall is causing political heartburn among Republicans in Washington. But that $3.6 billion is actually the third pot of public money Trump intends to tap without authorization from Congress, after $601 million from a Treasury Department asset forfeiture account and $2.5 billion from a Pentagon drug interdiction fund.

That anti-drug account doesn't actually have $2.5 billion, The Washington Post reports, so the Pentagon is planning to shift $1 to $2 billion over from unused funds earmarked for military pay and pensions. "Imagine the Democrats making that proposal — that for whatever our project is, we're going to cut military pay and pensions," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Associated Press on Thursday, following a briefing by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

The money is available because the Army fell about 6,500 soldiers short of its recruitment goals, despite an extra $200 million for bonuses and waivers for bad conduct or health problems. Additionally, fewer service members than expected opted for an early retirement program. "This is pay that would have gone to Army recruits that we can't recruit," Durbin told AP. "So there's a 'savings' because we can't recruit. The other part was they offered a voluntary change in military pensions, and they overestimated how many people would sign up for it."

Typically, the Pentagon would seek permission to "reprogram" money from these accounts, but Democrats believe that isn't happening this time. In response, House Democrats are considering limiting the Defense Department's authority to shift money in next year's spending bills. "If DoD acts unilaterally to abuse this trust, Congress will act as necessary to defend its constitutional prerogatives," said House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.). Peter Weber

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