House spending bill barring funds for border wall advances

Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd voted with Democrats

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who is retiring at the end of his term, was the only Republican member of the Appropriations Committee to back the Military Construction-VA spending bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who is retiring at the end of his term, was the only Republican member of the Appropriations Committee to back the Military Construction-VA spending bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 9, 2020 at 7:32pm

House appropriators approved a $115.5 billion Military Construction-VA spending bill Thursday on a 30-20 vote, with Texas Republican Will Hurd joining Democrats to advance the legislation to the floor.

The rest of the panel’s Republicans opposed Democrats’ decision to add $12.5 billion in emergency spending to the annual funding bill for veterans’ health care. GOP lawmakers also objected to language that would block military construction funds from going to installations named after Confederate officers unless the names are first changed.

Hurd, the only Black Republican lawmaker in the House, is retiring after finishing the current term, his third. 

The sole GOP amendment, offered by Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, would have removed language in the bill that bars President Donald Trump from diverting military construction funds to the border wall project as his administration has sought to do since early 2019. The amendment was rejected on a 13-19 vote.

Harris argued that more barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico would help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and reduce opioid addiction throughout the country.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., argued against adoption of the amendment, saying his case “does not hold water.”

She said panel members, regardless of partisan affiliation, should agree that Trump’s decision to pull billions in funding from military construction projects was an overreach of his constitutional authority.

“Everyone here must realize how inappropriate it is for the executive branch to trample upon our constitutionally protected power of the purse,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Legal challenges to Trump’s decision to divert funding from various accounts to the border wall project have been working their way through the court system for months. The latest ruling came in late June, with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deciding he did not have authority to divert the funding. The case is likely to end up at the Supreme Court.

Hurd, a former CIA officer who represents a large swath of U.S.-Mexico border territory, has said he opposes the wall project as costly and ineffective. He didn't speak in favor of the Democrats' bill during the markup, however. Hurd's office couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

The committee adopted one amendment on a voice vote. A bipartisan manager’s package would add language to the committee’s explanatory report encouraging the Texas Army National Guard to continue efforts to establish the National Guard Texas Training Center. The amended language also would urge the Army National Guard to prioritize modernization of facilities like Maneuver Area Training Equipment Sites where wheel maintenance on Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles is conducted.  

The manager’s package would also augment a section of the committee report that addresses supporting minority and disadvantaged contractors. It would require a breakdown on the number of contractors that submitted a small-business subcontracting plan during the fiscal year to be “disaggregated by race and ethnicity.”

‘Open sore’

The Appropriations panel didn’t debate any amendments regarding the yearslong effort for the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to implement an electronic health care records system that allows a medical file to seamlessly transition with a soldier. Still, members of both parties took the departments to task for the slow and expensive process.

“There’s been no solution to this open sore. And we’re losing young people, who are dying, are unable to get the proper kind of medical care because they could not access the records from VA and DoD together,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the former chairman of the full committee.  

Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said she was “disgusted” by the “expensive embarrassment.”

Wasserman Schultz suggested the committee might begin to condition funding for electronic health records contractors on the companies meeting certain benchmarks. Full committee ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, indicated she would support such a move as long as it didn’t withhold funding from the VA itself and only the contractors were affected.

The legislation would provide $104.8 billion in discretionary funds for the VA, a $12.3 billion or 13 percent boost compared with current funding levels.

The vast majority of that funding, $90 billion, would go to veterans’ medical care programs, including mental health care, homelessness assistance programs, women-specific care programs, opioid abuse prevention and rural health care initiatives. That total funding level represents a $9.8 billion boost in spending compared with current funding levels.

Appropriators included $2.6 billion for ongoing efforts to implement an electronic health care records system that should allow a much easier transfer of information from the Pentagon’s computers to the VA’s health care system. That represents a $1.1 billion boost in funding.

Military construction accounts would see a $1.2 billion drop in funding in the upcoming fiscal year to $10.1 billion, although that figure doesn’t take into account disaster funding approved during fiscal 2020. Another $350 million for bases in Europe  and elsewhere would be provided with an Overseas Contingency Operations designation, which doesn’t count toward discretionary budget caps.

The bill’s base funding allocation, known as a 302(b), is $102.65 billion, an $838 million dip from the current year.