The Wall between the White House and Congress

By Greg Waring   •

On Wednesday, January 30th, the House and Senate convened a Conference Committee on Homeland Security Appropriations. This represents the first formal step by Congress to negotiate a FY19 border security spending plan. The conferees have until February 15th to reach a deal or risk another partial government shutdown.

For President Trump, the key issue in these negotiations is his $5.7 billion border barrier construction plan. On January 25th, after the shutdown-ending agreement was announced, Senate Democratic Leader Schumer (D-NY), appearing with Speaker Pelosi (D-CA), noted, “Democrats are firmly against the wall. But we agree on many things, such as the need for drug inspection technology, humanitarian aid, strengthening security at our ports of entry, and that bodes well for finding an eventual agreement.” The challenge for the conferees is crafting a bipartisan, bicameral border security plan that President Trump can support. Failure to do so could trigger a Presidential national emergency designation and risk another partial government shutdown. 

The President’s $5.7 billion wall request is a down payment on a signature 2016 campaign promise. In a July 2018 report, the Government Accountability Office analyzed the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol plan for new, priority segments of physical barriers and estimated the total cost at $18 billion. Trump’s border security plan includes additional resources. On  December 4th, Trump tweeted, “Top Border Security, including a Wall, is $25 Billion.” 

In FY18, the President requested his first batch of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) procurements — $2 billion, including $1.7 billion in border infrastructure. Of that total, almost $1.6 billion was for border wall construction. Last year, Congress exceeded the President’s request by 10.5%. The FY18 total, an almost 200% increase over FY17, was approved six months into the fiscal year, and included a combination of physical construction, sensors, information technology, and vehicles.

As the data in Chart I shows, FY19 funding scenarios were complicated by a changing budget environment. The two-year funding boost outlined in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA18) allowed the White House to increase its FY19 border wall funding request from $1.6 billion (the amount approved last year by the Senate Appropriations Committee) to the current $5.7 billion figure. Last year, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee essentially matched the President’s increased construction request. After the November elections, Congressional Democrats initially put $1.6 billion on the table, before Speaker Pelosi publicly commented that she does not support a single dollar for the border wall.

There is a potential path forward. With border wall repair and construction under way, an extended CR for the Department of Homeland Security (as offered by House Democrats) would continue funding CBP border wall, technology and support funding at FY18 levels unless Congress opted to limit those funds. 

House Democrats have their own border security funding priorities. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Thompson (D-MS) commented that the House total could “meet or exceed what the President is asking for.” House Democrats have focused on more immigration judges, non-intrusive scanning technology, remote video, additional agents, and other security options that increase investments at ports of entry. Details on those proposals will emerge as the Conference Committee talks proceed. 

If the conferees reach agreement, President Trump must then decide how to proceed. He essentially has three options, threaten a veto and trigger another politically-damaging partial government shutdown, accept the bipartisan Congressional deal, or sign the bill and try to supplement whatever border security funding it provides with a national emergency designation. 

Which option will he choose?