Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Trump Is Trading Safe Schools for His Precious Wall, Which Is Really a Fence

Do the kids who live on military bases really need fire safety systems or functional plumbing in their schools?
September 6, 2019
Trump Is Trading Safe Schools for His Precious Wall, Which Is Really a Fence
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This week the secretary of defense notified Congress that 11 “military construction” projects on the international border with Mexico are “necessary to support the use of the armed forces.”

Not a single foot of “wall” is to be built with the $3.6 billion the secretary plans to divert from the Pentagon for this purpose. The 11 projects in four states are being funded in order to erect 174 miles of fencing.

In fact, these are not military construction projects as the Pentagon and the Congress have historically defined them. But historic norms are falling every day.

This tortured use of military construction funds, for a project that should properly fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, is an abuse of the constitutional and statutory prerogatives of Congress. Full stop.

Constitutionally, all legislative powers are vested in the Congress and, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Statutorily the Antideficiency Act further defines the control the Congress has over obligation of federal funds. In simple language, this statute bars federal employees from spending money in excess or advance of a congressional appropriation.

How can a determined president get around the Constitution and black-letter law to put up a fence that has not been authorized by, nor the funds appropriated, by the Congress? This is where the president’s emergency declaration in February comes in.

As Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote at the time, “An emergency declaration invoking 10 U.S.C. 2808, ‘Construction authority in the event of a declaration of war or national emergency’ is central to this argument. And so, it isn’t surprising, on the one hand, that the president would direct the Department of Defense to identify military construction projects that could be canceled, and those funds used to support wall construction.”

Military construction projects are the closest actions to earmarks that remain for the Congress. House members and senators carefully track the number and size of projects at bases they represent. Press releases follow each successful congressional action and photos of the ribbon cuttings appear in the local press. In the Pentagon’s budget request documents, each project is identified by the military service and the specific facility, making it easy for congressional staff to know what is in the pipeline for military bases in their district or state. This also makes it easy for Hill staff to notice when money is removed from those projects.

In response to the emergency declaration, earlier this year the Pentagon identified a long list of military construction programs previously approved by Congress but for which the funds had not yet been obligated. These projects ranged from intelligence centers to submarine piers and came from 31 different U.S. states and territories as well as 15 foreign countries.

Ultimately, the $3.6 billion list targeted 129 projects in 23 states, three territories, and U.S. bases in 19 countries. Puerto Rico, still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, seems to be particularly targeted with $372 million in construction funding raided to build the fence. Guam was second with $250 million in construction funding identified. Puerto Rico and Guam stand to lose more than any other U.S. state or territory.

In the continental United States the biggest loser is New York, slated to have $160 million in military construction projects diverted to the border. Instead of an engineering center for West Point cadets and a parking structure, taxpayer dollars are building a lot of fencing in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Again, according to documents released by the secretary of Defense, not a dime of this money is being spent on a “wall.”

And West Point isn’t the only educational institution that will lose funding. In fact, eight schools for dependents of U.S. military personnel are targeted to lose funding: one in Kentucky, one in Puerto Rico, three in Germany, two in Japan and one in the United Kingdom.*

This administration plans to divert funding that would improve or replace the schools that children of our military service members attend. This is not just an abuse of congressional prerogatives. It also violates the pact we make with our troops when they sign up to serve. Certainly, one of the most basic things the government can do is to ensure the children of our service members are taught in safe, modern facilities. President Trump had this to say in May, “To the active-duty moms here today: We thank you for your courage, and we applaud your noble service. You have two of the most important jobs in the world: bravely defending America from our enemies and helping to raise the next generation of American patriots.”

Unfortunately, those noble sentiments were set aside when looking for money to raid in pursuit of fencing on the southern border.

The Pentagon, when originally importuning the Congress to fund these school improvements and replacements, described the conditions at the current facilities in dire terms.

For instance, one of the elementary schools in Germany was described this way, “The current Spangdahlem Elementary School was constructed in 1954. . . . The facility is in poor condition. The following systems are expired or are failing; branch circuits, electrical service distribution, exterior doors, exterior windows, fire alarm system, air conditioning equipment, hydronic system, intercom system, public announcement system, local area network, lighting, roof coverings, wall finishes, casework, ceiling finishes, exit lights, exterior finishes, floor finishes, plumbing fixtures & piping, security system, and toilet partitions.”

It would have been simpler if the Pentagon had listed the systems that aren’t failing. But it gets worse.

At the U.S. Army garrison in Stuttgart, the elementary school was built in 1944. This means the building was constructed by the Nazis during World War II. The list of physical systems that have failed or are failing is much the same as at Spangdahlem Air Base. But then there is this devastating sentence: “The following life safety violations include: missing exit lighting, aging fire alarm systems, doors without closers leading to corridors, and missing visual alarms.”

In England, the justification for replacing Croughton Elementary School discloses that the current facility does not meet current standards for antiterrorism/force protection, Americans with Disabilities Act, or the National Fire Protection Association. Ask yourself whether you would be content to have your children or grandchildren attend a school like that.

These school projects as well as projects to enhance security at main gates and other access points to military bases would actually improve the security of U.S. citizens at home and overseas. That’s why the military asked for the money and the Congress approved it.

Compare that with the list of specific benefits for the 174 miles of fencing, which are . . .

Think about it this way: The budgetary sleight of hand calls into question the efficacy of the entire Pentagon budget, which is over $700 billion a year. If it’s really so easy for the military to find a spare $3.6 billion to fund projects outside the Pentagon, then they’re obviously asking for too much money, right?

The truth is that the Trump administration’s shenanigans are imperiling the health and safety of our military service members and their young children.

*Correction, September 6, 2019: The article initially and incorrectly claimed that a Texas school would lose funding. The school that will lose funding is in Kentucky.

Wendy Jordan

Wendy J. Jordan is the senior policy analyst for national security issues at Taxpayers for Common Sense. She has been in Washington, working on issues related to Pentagon spending, for more than 35 years.