Homeland Security

Paying for the Wall

By Paul Rosenzweig
Saturday, February 11, 2017, 5:41 PM

Recent news reports say that President Trump's wall construction plans are .  This is broadly consistent with a and will be in addition, of course, to earlier spending that reflects existing investments. 

Whose going to pay for it?  Or, more prosaically, do we need a new law to pay for it or is the money already appropriated by Congress?

To begin with, new fence construction is broadly authorized by the .  That bill authorizes DHS to take "all actions necessary and appropriate" to achieve "operational control" of the border.  Control, in turn, is defined in fairly absolute terms as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband." (my emphasis).  It seems reasonable to conclude that Congress has already spoken.  They want full border control -- however impossible that may actually be.

But, as students of Congress know, an authorization is different from an appropriation.  It's the expenditure of appropriated funds that drives actual government activity.  In FY 2016, Congress appropriated a little more than $436 million for fencing construction in the DHS/CBP account.  In the the sum was less -- only $261 million.  Also, somewhat notably, $55 million from FY 2016 was rescinded because it had not been "obligated" (that's budget speak for contractually committed to be spent).  Thus, the total for the last two years of border fencing spending is roughly $635 million, all told.

In addition to the appropriated funds, the President and Secretary often have some modest reprogramming authority -- that is the ability to move money around from one account (say personnel) to another (say construction).  But that, of course, applies only to funds that have not been "obligated" to their original purpose and is likely to be modest in scope.  The general rule is that reprogramming that exceeds $25 million or 5% of a component's budget requires Congressional approval.  

All of which is a long way of saying that right now the money isn't there.  Not even close.  As , funding for the wall will require supplemental appropriations.  And, if the estimates are right -- that we will spend roughly $7 billion/year for the next three years -- that expenditure will require a budget that is roughly 15-20 times the construction budget that CBP has annually today. 

And, for comparison sake that $7 billion per year is roughly equal to the total of what we have spent on wall construction in the past decade.  Or, for another comparison, consider that t.  In other words, the projected costs for the wall will be on the order of 13% of the current overall budget -- requiring either a commensurate level of cuts in DHS or funding from non-DHS sources (via higher taxes, larger deficits, or offsets in other departments).  These are the hard fiscal realities that face the project -- by no means insurrmountable, but very real indeed.

[Note:  Special thanks to Jordan Brunner for research support.]