When the president declared his national emergency and said he intended to use military construction funds to complete the border wall, the biggest question was which projects would lose their funding—known in budget speak as being a “bill payer”—and which would survive.
The Department of Defense has finally released the list of potential bill payers, although nothing is set yet. But the release made it clear that no projects currently underway will be affected. In fact, curiously, no money is going to move this fiscal year. The Pentagon’s fact sheet said, “The pool of potential military construction projects from which funding could be reallocated to support the construction of border barrier are solely projects with award dates after September 30, 2019.” For those without a calendar in front of them, that’s the end of this fiscal year… more than six months from now.
If you ask me, it sounds a little like the Pentagon is dragging its feet on this one, hoping the president and congress will come to some sort of resolution before it actually has to cut any approved projects.
Plenty of MILCON projects to choose from
The Constitution specifies that no appropriation for the maintenance of the Army and the Navy may be for more than two years. The courts have held that this only applies to money required for the actual maintenance of the force, not other purposes. Consequently, funds in the operations and maintenance account, the actual budget for getting stuff done, and funds in the personnel account are “one-year” money. Anything not spent by the end of the fiscal year is returned to the Treasury.
Other funds can hang around longer. Money for research, development, testing, and engineering is good for two years. Procurement funds are good for three years (except for ships, which is good for five years). Military construction funds are good for five years as well. The list the Pentagon released included all of the approved projects for which the department had made no award as of this past December.
A good chunk of the projects listed have anticipated award dates before the end of the FY. Others have anticipated award dates in the first quarter of FY20, which commences October 1. By setting the criteria as it has, the Pentagon brass has sent a signal to contracting officers: if you want your project spared, sign a contract and obligate funds as quickly as possible.
Housing Projects will be untouched
The whole situation was exacerbated by the fact that while the budget drama was unfolding, so was the exposure of substandard conditions in privatized military housing. As I said two weeks ago, 99% of military family housing is privatized, which means that the contractor, not the government, pays for maintenance, repairs, and improvements. The entire point of privatizing was to shift the risk to the contractors and save the military construction budget for other purposes. I also said that the facts won’t get in the way of a good story.
The DoD knows this all too well. The fact sheet took pains to emphasize what acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has said previously: housing projects would not be part of the cuts. “No military housing, barracks, or dormitory projects will be impacted,” it plainly stated.
What is left unsolved is exactly how the Pentagon plans to replenish the funds for these already-planned projects. Congress is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. Members from both parties understand that approving funds to replenish raided MILCON projects is the same thing as approving funding for the wall. That, of course, is something it expressly refused to do.
We haven’t even addressed the inevitable legal challenges (which will draw the process out, but which the White House will ultimately win).
We have not yet begun to fight over this issue.