Alabama’s Congressional delegation is raising concerns about a Department of Defense (DOD) plan announced last week that would tap $3.8 billion appropriated for military equipment to continue the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and divert $261 million from Austal in Mobile.
Arguably President Donald J. Trump’s marquee campaign promise, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has been a source of political contention since his election. Unable to secure the funds through a Congressional appropriation, Trump has repurposed military funding to pay for parts of the wall before.
However, unlike the proposal members of the House and Senate armed services committees received Thursday, those previous efforts used DOD funding that had been set aside for military construction projects and counter-drug operations, not combat equipment like ships, fighter jets and Humvees.
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., confirmed the Senate Armed Services Committee he sits on received notice of the DOD’s proposal Feb. 13. Joining a bipartisan group in the House, Jones objected to the proposal, though his concerns were more focused on the impacts it could have on Mobile.
“I am very concerned about the impact a decision like this could have on communities like Mobile, whose ship-building workforce is second to none,” Jones said. “I understand and agree we need to protect our borders, but I can’t understand for the life of me why folks in Mobile would be paying for this wall.”
Jones noted Austal is responsible for more than 4,000 “good-paying jobs in South Alabama,” but said he was also concerned about the impact the decision would have on U.S. soldiers and national security. He argued the decision “puts Alabama jobs on the line” and would ultimately “make [the U.S.] less safe.”
Democratic candidates for the state’s First U.S. Congressional District also denounced the idea during a joint press conference at Cooper Riverside Park. With Austal as a backdrop, Kiani Gardner, Rick Collins and James Averhart all said they didn’t want to see the funds diverted away from the district.
Collins said the repurposing of these DOD funds proves Mexico was never going to pay for the wall.
“During the 2016 campaign, President Trump promised a wall on the border and he said Mexico would pay for it,” Collins said. “Today we are told that the president wants to build the wall and the American people are going to pay for it using money diverted from critical military resources.”
Gardner said the proposal essentially “robs the community of $261 million,” and she also noted the ripple effect those dollars have in the Mobile area. Averhart, a former U.S. Marine, said the national security of the country should never be set aside to keep a campaign promise. He also called the wall “unnecessary.”
“This is nothing more than a political ploy. To deny military needs for a campaign promise is horrible. The citizens of the area will suffer,” he said.
While they might not share the same contempt for Trump’s decision itself, Alabama Republicans have expressed concerns about the impact pulling funding from Austal could have on thousands in the area.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., expressed disappointment with the administration’s decision to tap military funds to build President Trump’s long-touted border wall, but shifted the blame to Democrats in Washington. He said Congress should be prioritizing “building the wall” and “national defense.”
“First and foremost, I support the president’s efforts to build the wall. My strong preference is to do so through a direct appropriation, but Democrats have refused,” Shelby said. “While I am disappointed that the Department of Defense intends to target important priorities such as the Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) [vessel], the Democrats left the president little choice in finding the funds necessary to build the wall.”
A representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said he has “significant concerns with any action that could endanger jobs at Austal as well as President Trump’s goal of securing a 355 ship fleet.”
“He and his staff are working closely with the administration, his Congressional colleagues and Austal to seek a solution that protects the EPF program,” a statement from Byrne’s office said. “It is unfortunate that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who at one time supported a border wall, are playing political games that make reprogramming necessary.”
According to a Politico report — Jones’s office seems to have confirmed — the DOD’s newest proposal would pull funding for the wall from various procurement accounts set up to fund specific military projects across several branches of service. It includes a $261 million appropriation that was intended to pay Austal for the construction of another EFP vessel for the U.S. Navy.
Austal currently holds a $1.9 billion contract to build 14 ships and the $261 million would have gone toward the 15th. The EPF has a catamaran hull and can access small, minor and degraded ports with minimal external support. Austal currently builds EPFs and littoral combat ships (LCS) for the Navy.
Because of the time it takes to construct these types of vessels, the shifting of the DOD funds for the 15th EPF wouldn’t have an immediate effect even if it were finalized. Still, it’s something Austal USA President Craig Perciavalle said the shipbuilder would be keeping an eye on as it progresses.
“With 11 more surface ships yet to deliver to the Navy, including the two EPFs that were awarded to us under a year ago, we have a strong backlog and a lot to do over the next few years,” Perciavalle said. “As always, we’ll continue to focus on what we can control — delivering great ships to our great navy on cost and on schedule. That approach has served us very well in the past and I know will serve us well in the future.”
Reporter Dale Liesch contributed to this story.
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