Border Wall or Military Construction? Tough Choices Surround State of the Union

In this Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump walks into the House Chamber as he arrives for his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
In this Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump walks into the House Chamber as he arrives for his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Build the border wall. Or build an engineering center at West Point. Or an aircraft hangar in North Carolina. Or flood control projects. Or a vehicle maintenance center in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

President Donald Trump's State of the Union address tonight is expected to present members of Congress with difficult choices: Come up with $5.7 billion to build the border wall, or forgo a number of politically popular and job-producing projects in the Defense Department's military construction budget.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News Monday that Trump will make the case for constructing a "physical barrier that you can't crawl under or climb over" on the border as part of his speech to the nation from the chamber of the House of Representatives.

The president has repeatedly said that he will declare a national emergency to allow him to dip into the military construction budget, or a separate funding source from the Army Corps of Engineers, if Congress fails to provide money for the wall by Feb. 15 to avoid another government shutdown.

Via Twitter early Tuesday, Trump suggested that he might resort to a "Human Wall" of additional U.S. troops if there is no funding for additional segments of the existing wall.

"Tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our Southern Border," he wrote. "We have sent additional military. We will build a Human Wall if necessary. If we had a real Wall, this would be a non-event!"

The Pentagon announced Monday that an additional 3,750 active-duty troops will be deployed to bring the total on the border to about 4,350. In addition, about 2,300 National Guard troops have been on the border since last April.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, has already gone into detail on what diverting money from the military construction budget could mean to his district north of New York City.

In a statement Monday, Maloney said that a national emergency declaration could threaten $252 million worth of funding already allocated for construction projects at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The projects include a new engineering center, a water treatment plant, additional parking facilities, and upgrades to the West Point Cemetery, he said.

"It doesn't matter if you support building a wall or not, we can't steal funding from the next generation of military leaders to do it," Maloney said. "We set money aside to pay for projects like the engineering center and getting clean water for our cadets, not a wall."

In statements last month, and in remarks to defense reporters, Reps. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking committee member, said that Trump could draw on "unobligated funds" in the military construction budget during a national emergency.

Smith and Thornberry also said that such a move would immediately be challenged in the courts.

Among the "unobligated funds" projects -- those for which money has been set aside but not yet committed -- are $60 million for an aircraft maintenance hangar at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina; $105 million for a command-and-control facility at Fort Shafter in Hawaii; and $32 million for a vehicle maintenance shop at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

In addition to other projects in the U.S., "unobligated funds" could also apply to about $800 million in the 2019 defense budget for projects in Europe under the European Defense Initiative to shore up defenses against threats from Russia.

Another possible resource for the border wall could come from a separate source of funding as yet unspent by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control projects and to repair damage from last year's hurricane season, Smith said.

In a statement last month, Smith said that declaring a national emergency to dip into the military construction budget "is as clear a statement as any that President Trump values the construction of a wall over military readiness and support for our troops and their families."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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