President Trump Can Fund the Border Wall with Unobligated Balances

After a 36-day partial government shutdown, the longest in history, President Trump remains determined to make good on his promise to build a border wall to protect U.S. national security, while the Democrats remain staunchly opposed.  President Trump has the opportunity to bypass Democrat opposition by drawing on unobligated balances to fund the border wall, effectively precluding a national emergency declaration and allowing for the government to remain open.

To his great credit, President Trump has remained steadfast in his determination to build a border partition on the southern border.  Such border partitions have proven to be effective.  In San Diego, a border partition lowered apprehensions by 95%, while in El Paso, the number decreased by 89%.  President Trump has correctly claimed that Israel's southern border wall is 99.9% successful.  According to a report released by Senator Ron Johnson, Israel's southern border fence was central to a decline of 99.9% of illegal border crossings, with over 16,000 crossings in 2011 down to fewer than 20 in 2016.  Israel's security partition running near the Green Line has also proven extremely effective in an exceptional decline in terrorist attacks.

Since completion of the partition in El Paso, they have seen a significant decrease in drug-smuggling and other crimes.  In 2015, the U.S. Border Patrol seized close to 800 tons of illegal drugs, 99.4% of which were seized at the southern border.  The sale of illegal drugs in the U.S. costs many thousands of lives each year, but due to the profitable nature of the sale of illicit drugs, a number of dangerous organizations, such as Hezb'allah, continue to be active in transporting drugs into the United States.

As of August 2017, about 1,249 miles of the southern border remain unprotected, though the border wall continues to be built.  Even with some natural barriers, the southern border is extremely porous.  It is a national security imperative that the border partition be completed with complementary technologies, such as those used in Israel, to effectively seal the southern border.  Even though each border is unique, the U.S. can learn a great deal from Israel's effective southern border wall, including ensuring that the border wall is more cost-effective.

According to the report released by Senator Ron Johnson, the cost per mile for Israel's southern border partition is $2.9 million.  A similarly priced partition on 1,249 miles of the U.S. southern border would be about $3.6 billion.  Even with additional border patrol agents, and various new technologies, such as motion sensors, video cameras, night sensors, drones, and tunnel detection technology, an effective border wall would still be cost-effective and likely significantly lower than recent cost estimates of $15 to 25 billion.  The amount of money saved on account of a precipitous decline in illegal immigration, drug-smuggling, and crime would almost certainly quickly exceed the cost of the border partition.

The impasse on keeping the government open through the end of F.Y. 2019 continues, notwithstanding President Trump's "commonsense compromise both parties should embrace."  President Trump made this compromise offer on January 19 while making the case that building the border wall is of vital importance.  Democrat leaders quickly rejected President Trump's compromise, with Nancy Pelosi calling it "unacceptable."  Speaker Pelosi even refused to allow President Trump's State of the Union address to take place in the House Chamber as long as the partial government shutdown continued.

The intransigence of the Democrats reflects the sharp left turn they have taken on many important issues.  In 2006, there was widespread Democrat support for the Secure Fence Act in the House of Representatives and majority Democrat support in the Senate.  Democrats oppose securing the border because, notwithstanding their statements to the contrary, they are effectively becoming the open-borders party.  They also wish to be the opposition party by opposing President Trump on a wide array of policy matters.  If Democrats keep President Trump from fulfilling his centerpiece election promise of securing the southern border, it may result in depressed Republican voter turnout, leading to Democrat wins in the 2020 elections in the House, Senate, and White House.

In response to Democrats repeatedly making it clear that they will not allow construction of a border wall, President Trump has frequently made it evident that if Democrats do not compromise, he is seriously considering declaring a national emergency to marshal funds for the wall without congressional approval.  This will undoubtedly face legal challenges, which must be overcome.

While President Trump is correct to remain committed to building a border barrier and has asked all Cabinet agencies for wall funding, he can fund the entire barrier without having to declare a national emergency.  Instead, he can draw full funding for a complete border barrier from unobligated balances.  Unobligated balances "are the amounts of budget authority that have not yet been committed by contract or other legally binding action by the government."  Former senator Tom Coburn described unobligated balances as "essentially money for nothing."  While in 2012 there was an estimated $687 billion in unobligated balances, unobligated balances in federal and trust funds in FY 2019 is estimated to be a whopping $1,156,136,000,000 (See Table 1 on page 9).  The total estimated unexpended end-of-year balance (i.e., the unspent balance including unobligated and obligated balances) for FY 2019 is $2,650,531,000,000.

In a recent article, Scot Faulkner advises that President Trump should mine the available funds from unobligated balances to fund the border wall.  Faulkner notes that "reallocating unused federal funds" for building the border wall could be done with "the stroke of President Trump's pen – and a push of a button from the Office of Management and Budget."  He argues that since President Lyndon Johnson, presidents have returned unobligated and unexpended funds to the Treasury using a "budget sweep" mechanism.  According to Faulkner, unobligated balances were used by Johnson to help fund his Great Society, by both Johnson and Nixon to help with funding for the Vietnam War, to assist with Carter's expanding domestic programs, to go toward Reagan's work to bring down the Soviet empire, to help fund both Iraq wars by Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and by President Clinton to help him stay within Republican congressional budget limits.  President Obama never used a budget sweep, allowing $914.8 billion in unspent, unobligated balances to continue to accrue.  President Trump has also not used a budget sweep.  As a result, there will be an estimated $1.156 trillion in unobligated balances by the end of F.Y. 2019 if these balances are permitted to languish.

Any funds that President Trump can reallocate to building the border barrier without the need for approval to reprogram those funds from the Democrat-controlled House should be allocated for the barrier.  However, if President Trump can take the unobligated balances and have the Treasury reclaim that money, it can be used to fully pay for a border barrier, additional border security personnel, and accompanying technology.  Further, other funding can be used to fund other critically important initiatives that would not receive Democrat support.  Much of the over $1 trillion in unobligated balances could be used toward paying down the national debt that is currently close to $22 trillion.

President Trump should seriously look at the option of using a "budget sweep," as well as any potential alternative (such as using unauthorized appropriations), to bypass the obstructionism of the Democrats, fulfill a critically important campaign promise, and better ensure U.S. national security well into the future.  In spite of Democrat opposition to properly protect the border, President Trump can save the day, fund the border partition, and avert a recurrence of the partial government shutdown.  And he can tell the tens of millions of Americans listening to his State of the Union address all about it.