Pentagon’s $1 Billion for Wall: A Door-Opener to Crucial Fixes for Infrastructure, Environment?

Photograph Source Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde – Public Domain

Now that President Donald Trump’s sleight-of-hand has just moved $1 billion and soon possibly $5.1 billion more from the Pentagon’s $674 billion  FY2019 allocation to furnish labor and materials to build his border wall, he’s opened precedent to actions he’s probably never imagined. But domestic activists surely can—and will—if fast enough. So could those in Congress once they stop caterwauling about his “reprogramming” Defense funds they stipulated only for “repairs to existing structures.”

The Corps of Engineers has been assigned to build that “emergency” wall—plus fix roads, lighting in the Yuma-El Paso areas—with Army personnel, construction materials, and vehicles on the American taxpayers’ allocation to the Pentagon’s spending. For FY2020 its take of a proposed $750 billion from federal appropriations is nearly 53 percent of $1.4 billion in the discretionary spending section.

However, because of that action and the Pentagon’s past use of “reprogramming,” the doors could also swing wide to “reprogramming” billions for two real and major national emergency crises threatening our domestic security, let alone the Constitutional guarantee of providing for the common defense, ensuring domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare of the American people. The two threats are the oncoming environmental catastrophies and infrastructure repairs to prevent the pending collapse of the nation’s bridges, highways, railways, waterways, dams, levees, and airports.

Moreover, today’s taxpayers certainly know by now that the Pentagon has cash available to cover this kind of “defense,” considering decades of audit avoidance. The public has long suspected billions have covered waste, cost overruns, and defunct or questionable projects, like the recent $11.5 billion order for 141 of the technically troubled F-35 fighter jets at $89.2 million apiece.

Tell that to California’s forest fire victims who’ll probably never recoup their collective $12.4 billion in losses of homes and businesses. Or those suffering from the devastating Midwestern floods that may reach far more than $3billion. And particularly the still-recovering thousands of Puerto Ricans two years after Hurricane Maria ($94 billion). Coastal areas are expected to be under natural “attack,” as in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey and New York City ($70.2 billion) risking the lives of 50 million. The West Coast is bracing for the planet’s “Big One,” an 8.0earthquake which in Los Angeles alone carries a prediction of 1,800 dead, 50,000 injured, and $200 billion damages. Those living near dams, whether age-cracked or erosion-undermined, had to be unnerved two years ago when a 30-foot hole developed in California’s Oroville dam requiring the evacuation of 100,000.

Even when the Pentagon was called the “War Department” up to 1949, its leaders were masters at the ability to shift Congressional appropriations to respond to domestic priorities, especially addressing horrifying natural disasters. Its past and present history on that score demonstrate current officials are well aware that these two oncoming juggernauts are far more immediate and critical to Americans than protecting corporations’ billion-dollar “national interests” by building and maintaining 800 bases around the globe.

The Pentagon has had a heroic past where its branches took on the heaviest and immediate burden of disaster relief on land and waterways and even in reinstalling utilities when local power companies were overwhelmed. Its greatest moment domestically was in the rescue-and-relief operations of the great 1927 Mississippi seven-state flood, America’s worst natural disaster so far. Its men and women saved more than a million lives, one journalist  reporting that:

Within two days, its people were on the front lines: 800 large ships from the Navy and 128 small boats from the Coast Guard pulled 43,853 people off rooftops, chimneys, utility poles, railroad cars, collapsing levees and treetops. The Coast Guard’s 674-member rescue team also saved 11,313 head of livestock and rushed 72 injured refugees to hospitals. The Navy and National Guard flew endless rescue-and-supply missions. The Army furnished tents, cots, blankets, rations, and field kitchens to the thousands of refugees in 154 levee camps—even teaching basic plumbing skills.

Because the tightfisted President Coolidge refused to part with a dime of public money to cover the stratospheric costs of these actions, Department officials obviously “reprogrammed” its allocations to cover their emergency mission.

In the early 1930s, the Pentagon’s Corps of Engineers became the key administrator for the immense coast-to-coast, billion-dollar infrastructure programs of the Great Depression’s WPA (Works Project Administration) of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Corps taught nearly nine million destitute and unemployed men and women (18-65) how to build or repair everything from dams and bridges to roads, hospitals and schools throughout the U.S.

Meantime, the Army itself also was the mover-shaker of nearly 3.5 million single men (18-25) in the New Deal’s CCC  (Civilian Conservation Corps) to fix equally immense environmental disasters on federal and state lands—everything from reforesting the country and reseeding Dust Bowl areas to fighting fires and erosion’s devastation.

The CCC-ers were directed by other departments and agencies  (Agriculture and Interior, National Parks and Forest Services), but the Army furnished transport to its3,000 camps  —Alaska to Puerto Rico and California to New York—as well as tents, barracks, and equipment. They lived Army style and were fed, clothed, given medical/dental care, and educated  (40,000 learned to read; thousands took vocational and college-level classes by mail).

A Columbia University Earth Institute spokesperson has noted the Pentagon has been keenly aware of climate change since 1990 and up to the Trump regime has been “actively working” on how to cope with “the worst effects of global warming, including flooding, extreme heat, extreme weather, and more.”

Former Defense secretary Chuck Hagelin 2014 revealed those plans and needs for the heavy lifting required to forestall an Armageddon:

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

…. The military could be called upon more often to support civil authorities, and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the face of more frequent and more intense natural disasters….Politics or ideology must not get in the way of sound planning. Our armed forces must prepare for a future with a wide spectrum of possible threats, weighing risks and probabilities to ensure that we will continue to keep our country secure. By taking a proactive, flexible approach to assessment, analysis, and adaptation, the Defense Department will keep pace with a changing climate, minimize its impacts on our missions, and continue to protect our national security.

Among the needs Hagel foresaw were:

* Fixing coastal military installations vulnerable to flooding.

* More frequent humanitarian-assistance missions from increasingly intense natural disasters.

* Weapons and other critical military equipment to cope with more severe weather.

As for infrastructure, even back in 2017 long neglect by federal and state governments was estimated to cost taxpayers an astronomical $4.59 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). They add that the railway portion alone needs $154.1 billion in upgrades.

Failure to act now, it continually warns procrastinating officials, means even greater repair efforts and costs—or facing destruction, especially in the vast rural areas. For urban businesses and residents, broken transportation systems equal lost profits, lost business-tax revenues, lost jobs, and, thus, lost tax payments to local, state, and federal governments.

But president after president, Congress after Congress in recent years have given only lip service to addressing these needs, seemingly because of astronomical costs and immensity just for repairs, let alone construction and maintenance of new ones. It’s cheaper to just declare a national emergency and cut a check for a few millions in relief. Or toss paper towels at disaster victims. But also because these needs are not their needs.

Yet public fury is simmering about paying $5.6 trillion for endless wars since 9/11—including building, staffing, and maintaining at least 800 bases abroad. They may not be aware that Environmental Protection Agency has suffered significant retrenchment in regulations and key staff cuts since Trump’s people have applied the snickersnee, but they have begun to see and feel the disastrous fruits of current governmental neglect. So it is with almost no action on infrastructure: gigantic potholes, cracked pavements, traffic-clogged highways, bridges near collapse, lead-laced drinking fountains, deadly train wrecks, polluted waterways, diminishing wetlands, and dangerous deterioration of dams.

For example, Trump’s 2018 State of the Union’s speech assigned Congress to spend $1.5 trillion on new infrastructure over, say, 30 years, but said nothing about repairing older infrastructure. The treasury barely has $200 billion available, meaning that the rest would require gutting other federal programs—especially for social programs—and require state and local governments to float municipal bonds instead of using their tax revenues or raising them. As with President Obama, it’s been all words, no action in Trump’s halfhearted demand, signaled by his 30-year timeline.

Nor has Congress bestirred itself despite a specifics-heavy bill to fix the infrastructure with a public-works—15 million jobs—offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders and six colleagues. Its $1 trillion price tag would be repaid over the years, the text promises, by rolling back the GOP’s tax cuts for the rich and closing loopholes exploited by Wall Street billionaires.

The Pentagon’s purported concern for both infrastructure and the environment thus far has not offered to pick up the ball by its historic “reprogramming” appropriations for previous potential national disasters of the kind forecast by the ASCE or legions of environmental experts. Its “ox” will be equally gored.

The irony is that the Pentagon was one of the principal lobbyists, designers, and overseers for President Eisenhower’s 1956 $25 billion-dollar, 41,000-mile, four-lane divided interstate highway system, the largest public-works project in U.S. history. His military background and personal knowledge all but shouted that America’s roads, bridges, and tunnels were in such shambles they’d never withstand an enemy attack. Equally, the Pentagon’s view was that highways and bridges would be so clogged by millions of fleeing civilians, it would be impossible for rapid movement of men and material. America’s highways, Ike noted, had “appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.”

The Interstate Highway bill’s original name, “The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act,” certainly reflected Ike’s and the Pentagon’s heavy and urgent hands. Passage was lightning fast. Within two months of introduction in April it was law by June. As one historian said about military factors in design:

…throughout the system, mile-long stretches of concrete pavement double as emergency landing strips for military aircraft. Many Army posts, especially where division-level units are garrisoned, are near interstate highways.

Curiously, Ike and the Pentagon knew that in WWII, railroads moved more than 90 percent of military freight and men were equally important to be in superb shape. But Congress obviously recognized that more voters traveled by car than rail so this essential got sidetracked, as it were.

Financing was a matchup of 90% federal money to 10% from states, all deposited into a Highway Trust Fund holding fuel and vehicle taxes and investment proceeds. Considering the Pentagon’s intense interest and direction of this massive project—and inclusion of its name in the original bill—the huge startup costs obviously had to have been initially defrayed once again by “reprogramming” allocation money into construction.

Though the program was a public-works project, it could not wait for a new WPA to be organized and so the country’s largest companies such as Kiewit went after the contracts which did provide thousands of jobs building and repairing the Interstate system’s current 48,489 miles.

In short, years of precedents to “reprogram” expenditures indicate that if the Pentagon can shift them to build a border wall blocking immigrants, surely they can do the same for these two far, far greater priorities in protecting the nation’s infrastructure and environment.

To build Trump’s wall will require diverting only a few hundred troops. But to solve both infrastructure and environmental challenges will remove thousands from active duty—which the Pentagon can’t spare, particularly because the Army itself is short 64,000 to 74,000 recruits.

But this and the two chief objectives could be achieved—plus a positive image for the Pentagon—if its leaders “reprogrammed” the Army’s recruitment system to include the resurrection of the WPA/CCC to attract 18-25 year-olds interested either in environmentalism or engineering. Or degree-holders waiting to get jobs in their fields. A recruit would spend two years either in the new WPA or CCC, then have a month to decide whether to spend the next two on active duty or take a discharge with noVA benefits?

Even if only half of the recruits finished the initial two years, the Army would be gaining thousands of healthy, drug-free, disciplined, purposeful, top-of-the-line soldiers—and potential careerists. Troublemakers and the troubled would have been washed out within weeks. And those opting out after two years would have acquired field experience with state-of-the-art equipment and techniques. They would have enrich resumes for a leg up on career prospects.

Costs would be minuscule compared to the ASCE’s staggering infrastructure projections and ruinous estimates for the nation’s environmental needs. Taxpayers would no tbe funding private corporations because the program’s expense would be already covered within Pentagon allocations and earmarked for training, housing, food, uniforms, healthcare, pay—and construction costs like those 800 bases. Its warehouses certainly house plenty of supplies for erecting temporary barracks and tented camps, food and clothing—not to mention tools, equipment, stockpiles of building materials, fuel, and heavy construction machinery and vehicles. Environmental goods also are readily available in Corps of Engineers storehouses.

Reprogramming Pentagon dollars to address the nation’s critical infrastructure and environmental needs has everything to recommend it.

The Trump Administration and Congress would sigh with relief that those nagging domestic problems are being solved. The national debt would not increase to pay private industry for these immense undertakings, something FDR did by refusing to privatize the WPA/CCC programs. The Pentagon not only would fill its empty ranks with top-flight troops but regain its heroic standing with the public for providing its monumental resources for the real“common defense” of this country in the critical years ahead.

It could then risk asking Americans, “so what’s not to like about today’s Pentagon?”