In 2018, the White House issued 60 major disaster declarations, which included the California wildfires and Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Congress is now wrestling with how best to distribute $17.2 billion in disaster aid. While immigration is generally not a topic of consequence in bills related to natural disasters, Democrats have made sure to include language that bans President Trump from using any of the $17.2 billion to finance his promised border wall.
The House Democrats introduced their bill which allocates $3 billion more than a similar package (H.R. 268) passed in January that stalled in the Senate. A total of 17 agencies receive some form of emergency funding in the updated version, H.R. 2157. The bill allocates more than $1 billion each for five: USDA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and Defense. Following the February budget standoff between President Trump and congressional Democrats, the president declared that he would use funds from the Defense budget to fund parts of the wall. Within H.R. 2157, the Democrats sought to ensure that he could not use these emergency funds to support his signature campaign project.
The bill spells out the funding description of each agency. Each agency’s allotment ends with the following sentence:
“That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.”
That sentence appears 56 times. However, each of the five Defense department allocations ends with a different clause:
“Provided further… funds made available under this heading may only be used for the purposes specifically described under this heading.”
This language was not included in the original January legislation, H.R. 268. It is not included in the Senate’s proposed amendments. It is a political addition from Democrats. It intends to keep the president from using these funds for border wall construction. Was this inclusion necessary? Without a similar clause, could the U.S. Department of Agriculture use its $5.7 billion for projects unrelated to natural disasters?
Despite Democratic concerns, it is unlikely that President Trump considered using funds from natural disaster relief to address the border wall. The political optics are terrible, especially for a president preparing his reelection campaign. Also, the president allegedly plans to unveil a new proposal asking for billions in emergency funds to address the border crisis. Early reporting suggests that he has focused his attention towards funding efforts other than the wall. There are no statements or tweets suggesting that he intended to siphon money from this aid package to the border. Indeed, the original aid package died because of his opposition to additional aid for Puerto Rico. If anything, this added language may provoke the president and make passage of this bill even harder.