Emboldened by preliminary court victories on the border wall and under pressure to deliver on a key promise headed into the 2020 elections, the Trump Administration on Tuesday announced its intent to proceed with the next steps in building the border wall through national emergency authorities. In a letter to congressional leadership, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper outlined the contours of his plan to fund $3.6 billion of the border wall, with approximately $1.8 billion coming from “deferred military construction projects outside of the United States,” and the remaining half relying on “deferred military construction projects located in the United States (including U.S. territories).” The Department declined to specify at this time which projects will be raided to fund the wall. But in the coming days, as members of Congress and foreign embassies are notified of the spending cuts, we will have a full accounting of the military construction projects that will be cut – and just how politically complicated this will be on the Hill.
In February, as the Senate was considering a resolution opposing the President’s emergency declaration, I wrote that the outcome could hinge on the politics of military construction, and particularly the votes of 14 key Republican senators from military construction oversight committees. Several of these senators have substantial military construction projects and large populations of military voters in their home states. I wrote that the senators faced three unenviable choices – (1) oppose the President and face potential political backlash from Trump’s base; (2) support the President and negotiate with the administration so that their specific projects would be protected; or (3) support the President and bet that some combination of courts, bureaucratic inertia, or new elections would run out the clock.
Fast forward just over six months and the politics have only become more fraught and the political pathway narrower. Several of the senators I identified – including three of the eight Republican military construction appropriators (Marco Rubio, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins) – broke ranks with the President and voted with Democrats in opposing the emergency declaration. All told, 12 Republicans joined a united bloc of Democrats in supporting the resolution. But President Trump vetoed the resolution, and a House vote to override the veto fell far short of the required two-thirds majority.
The third option I laid out – run out the clock – also appears less viable than it once did. With the Supreme Court recently allowing the administration to continue with spending $2.5 billion in military funds (the non-military construction component) on the border wall while court proceedings continue, the prospects for a judicial stoppage preventing DOD from spending on the wall appear less likely than they once did. And with the President eager to deliver on a key campaign promise before November next year, the White House will likely plow through any bureaucratic inertia that impedes his progress.
This leaves most senators with the second option – negotiate to save their projects. Undoubtedly, senators have been lobbying DOD over the past six months, and recently-confirmed Secretary Mark Esper, a longtime Hill staffer and lobbyist, will be acutely aware of the politics involved in reallocating military construction funds. Indeed, the details provided so far suggest an effort to lower the political costs. While we won’t have the full picture from the Department for several days, we can read between the lines to reach several early assessments of what might come and how the administration and Congress might navigate the fraught politics around these spending cuts.
First, we are probably unlikely to see a clear case of political favoritism in the list of projects to be cut. If the administration is seen as playing political favorites, it could complicate its ongoing defense of legal challenges to the wall expenditures and create blowback among the service members and their families – a strongly Trump-aligned constituency – over playing politics with military livelihoods.
Second, the Department has vowed that it will not cut family housing or military barracks, a nod to taking care of the troops’ most basic needs but also likely a way to ensure that the military voting bloc feels less of the direct impact.
Third, it’s also clear that the administration intends to inflict much of the pain overseas rather than at home. With half of the funds coming from overseas projects – much of which Trump probably sees as evidence of U.S. overinvestment abroad anyway – there is likely to be less political backlash in the communities Trump needs in 2020.
Fourth, with Esper’s parenthetical that funds could be taken from projects in U.S. territories, the administration seems to be signaling that military construction projects in places like Guam – an island with 164,000 inhabitants and no representative in Congress – could be on the table. This, too, would dampen the political fallout for key members.
Fifth, the administration seems to be focused on diffusing the pain as much as possible, by pulling $1.8 billion from 127 different projects. However, with an average cut of $14.2 million per project, it remains to be seen whether this will be broad enough or whether key communities will acutely feel the loss of tens of millions of dollars. One downside of this diffusion strategy is that many more oxen will get cut even if not gored.
Finally, the Pentagon seems to be providing members an out – by asking for Congress to “backfill” the funds he is allocating to these projects. This, of course, amounts to basically a backdoor to funding the President’s initial request and is likely to be met with staunch public resistance by congressional Democrats. As Politico reports, “The move is also expected to draw ire of Republicans — at least privately.” But for GOP senators, it could be a way to save face back home and support a president who may still enact revenge in 2020 on those accused of disloyalty to his agenda.
Any way you look at it, the politics of military construction will remain the under-the-radar force that drives much of the final outcome on President Trump’s border wall.
Photo credit: en. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) (L) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) share an elevator as they head for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol October 02, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images