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What Goes Unbuilt to Build a Wall

As every civic-minded American newsreader already knows by now, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to re-appropriate a few billion dollars from the defense budget to build a big beautiful wall along America’s southern border. By now you should also know that majorities in both chambers of Congress voted to block the action, but Trump vetoed it, and it seems unlikely that a super-majority in the Senate will be able to override it, and despite some court challenges Trump seems likely to eventually get some wall money.
We commend you for having followed it that closely, but if you’re as obsessively civic-minded a newsreader as we are you might want to know from where those few billions of dollars will likely be re-appropriated.
A couple of intrepid reporters at The Washington Post were curious enough to look into it, and although we’re supposed dismiss their findings as “fake news” from “enemies of the people” their conclusions sound plausible enough to us, and better sourced than what Trump usually has to say about what some people are saying. Much of the report is based on a list that the Defense Department reluctantly released under pressure from Congress that identifies $12.9 billion of military construction projects that been funded but not yet contracted, which according to the convoluted theories of the vaguely written law that Trump is invoking are fair game for presidential re-appropriation. The Pentagon has ruled out defunding the projects they expect to finalize contracts for within the year, which leaves only $4.35 billion available, and Trump has announced he expects to spend $3.6 billion of it on his wall, an a civic-minded newsreader can make an educated guess about which projects are most vulnerable.
There are 10 projects with a combined cost of $403 million slated for Puerto Rico, which has no electoral votes and has long seemed of little concern to Trump, so they seem likely to be slashed. The projects include a school for military children on former Air Force base and improved training for the Puerto Rican National Guard, which previous Defense Departments and congresses had considered important to the national security, but Trump will easily able to explain to the die-hard fans that $403 million worth of wall along a few miles of the southern border is more important than anything that might happen in Puerto Rico.
There’s another $745 million to be had from the European Deterrence Initiative, which includes 23 projects spread throughout Europe and was launched by President Barack Obama back in 2014 after Russia’s assaults on the sovereignty of Ukraine and Crimea, that’s surely a tempting slice of the budget to Trump. He can still tell the die-hard fans that no president has ever been tougher on Russia, and that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a nice guy who’d never do anything to hinder American democracy, anything Obama did had to be wrong, and all those supposedly allied countries where the money was being spent are all taking advantage of us and laughing behind our backs. What’s more, none of those countries have any electoral college votes.
Another $258 is slated to be spent in Guam, which is mostly a strategically crucial military base but has no electoral votes, and the rest is spread out over eight states. The Washington Post generously provides a graph showing how much spending had been slated for each state, and without bothering to dig into what the projects are we assume the cuts will be made according to how many votes each state is expected to deliver in the next electoral college. That’s bad news for Washington and Maryland, good news for Texas, and probably the best news of all for states the Republicans hope they can possibly flip and suddenly have to worry they might lose. The math might require that some Republican district or another will take a hit, but Trump can still count on its Representative’s support.
Which is no way to appropriate money for the national defense, of course, but we suppose it’s always been so. The smart defense contractors always spread their work around the country just enough to sway congressional and electoral college majorities, the smart politicians always defend their home turf’s share, and we notice that a significant portion of Obama’s spending went to such reliably Democratic states as Washington and Maryland, even if we also notice that Boeing is still big in Washington and has always gotten its share based on merit. Even so, the politics of this particular moment seem especially peculiar.
For one thing, we’re not at all persuaded that a big beautiful wall along the entire southern border is a pressing national security need, much less the stuff of a state of national emergency. Our assessment of the worldwide threats to national security finds far more pressing needs, and the very official-souning “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the National Intelligence Community” seems to agree with us. According to all the polls everybody but the die-hard Trump fans are similarly unimpressed, and so are majorities of the people’s representatives in both chambers of Congress also disagree, even if they can’t muster a super-majority in the Senate to override a veto.
For another thing, the few measly billions of dollars that Trump intends re-appropriate will only pay for a relatively few miles of it, and much of that will be tied in legal fees fighting the landowners who have been happily living along an unwalled border objecting to the government’s eminent domain seizure of their private property. An affinity for private property and an aversion to government seizures used to be a defining characteristic of American conversation, which is yet another thing we don’t like about the politics of the moment.
Conservatives also used to believe in the Constitution, which gives the legislative branch the power to appropriate funds and doesn’t mention the executive branch doing any re-appropriating, and that’s even one more thing we don’t like about the politics of moment.

— Bud Norman

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On the Ongoing Border War

There’s little in the news these days except the debate over a border wall and its resulting partial government shutdown, which might or might not be good for President Donald Trump. The upside for Trump is that no one’s paying much attention to the latest developments in the “Russia thing,” or talking about what Trump’s longtime lawyer will soon tell an open congressional hearing on his way to federal prison, and Trump’s die-hard fans can console themselves that at least he fights, which they seem to find quite consoling. The downside is pretty much everything else.
Despite the best efforts of Trump and his talk radio apologists, the president is taking a beating on the public relations front.
Past partial government shutdowns have been short-lived and gone largely unnoticed, but this time around is far longer and harsher than usual. The “fake news” media have come up with some all-too-real sob stories about the 800,000 or so federal workers who won’t be getting paid today, scary tales about air traffic controllers and airport security officers calling in sick to protest their lack of pay, and trash and human feces piling up at America’s national parks. There are few more hundred thousand employees of government contractors who also aren’t getting paid, too, and plenty of footage of farmers who are having trouble getting the subsidy checks they were promised when commodity prices dropped in the wake of Trump’s trade wars.
Both sides always play the blame game during these partial government shutdowns, but Trump pretty much gave that away when he invited all the cameras from the “fake news” to record him telling Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “I will be proud to shutdown the government for border security.” By “border security” Trump clearly meant the big and beautiful border wall he promised he would build along the entire southern border, but the public seems to have figured out that America can have border security without a wall, and that even the biggest and most beautiful wall won’t secure the country’s borders.
Trump has resorted to some easily disproved falsehoods about how all the past American presidents supported a sea-to-shining-sea border wall, and even Fox News has challenged his administration’s claims about the number Islamist terrorists crossing the southern border. He’s bragged about his magnanimity as he’s back downed from previous promises of a concrete to a mere American-made steel fence, and he’s been forced to say that he never really it meant it when he said that Mexico would gladly pay for it. Trump still insists that Mexico is indirectly paying for it by the great yet unratified trade deal that he has so brilliantly negotiated, but even it does raise enough federal revenue to pay for a wall it’s still money that could have been spent elsewhere if Mexico had actually paid for Trump’s big and beautiful border wall.
The objections aren’t just coming from those damned open borders Democrats, who we have to admit have offered billions for all sorts of border security efforts that don’t involve a big and beautiful wall along the entire border, but also some Republicans with old-fashioned pre-Trump conservative notions. The remaining Republicans in the House representing districts along the border are opposed to the idea, as many of their constituents own border land and don’t want a wall on it. Along most of the border Americans have happy and profitable relations with their neighbors to the south, and Trump should note that at one point a golf course would be cut in half, and that pre-Trump conservatism takes a dim view of eminent domain seizures of private property.
Trump is now threatening to use his presidential powers to declare a national emergency and divert funds from the defense budget or money appropriated for disaster relief and efforts to prevent further hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and Texas, but the few remaining pre-Trump conservatives will object on on old-fashioned constitutional grounds, and everyone in the country but the die-hard fans probably won’t buy into that. On Thursday’s photo-op at the southern border Trump riffed about how the wheel proceeded the wall back in the Medieval Age, and he looked even more ridiculous in his white “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and national emergency windbreaker and white slacks, and he seemed to realize the photo-op was a waste of time, as he’d already predicted to some reporters who leaked the off-the-record comment.
Trump is losing the argument in all the opinion polls, that awful but undeniably shrewd Pelosi woman clearly understands her advantage, but Trump can’t back down for fear of what the talk radio hosts might say, so those hundreds of thousands of government employees and government contract employees going without paychecks and the local business that depend on their patronage should probably hunker down for the long haul. Despite Trump’s claim that he’s backed by the entirety of the Republican there are already some dissenting votes, and of course all of those damned Democrats are against anything he wants, and although we have to admit that at least Trump fights he seems to be losing another round, and he won’t keep that “Russia thing” out of the news forever.

— Bud Norman