By: Mathias Kling
In a time of extreme polarization, we examine how plausible President Trump’s wall is, and how willing Congress might be to fund this atypical project.
Is President Donald Trump’s border wall actually unreasonable? Is it feasible for the richest country in the world to secure the entirety of its southern border with the construction of a wall? Since Trump announced his bid for the presidency, we have often heard about the threat that illegal immigration poses to American welfare. While it is fairly clear Trump is still intent on building the wall, how he will do this remains to be seen. That said, Trump is hardly the first president with plans requiring massive spending. This article will explore past presidential promises made by President Obama and acts passed under President Bush, focusing on how they invoked mandatory additional fiscal spending, and compare these promises and their costs to that of a potential wall to answer how likely it is that Trump’s wall will become a reality.
It can be argued that the most important aspect of the wall would be the shift it would represent in U.S. foreign policy: essentially making the American dream only available to Americans. The consequences of this change in policy by the leader of the free world might have greater consequences at an international level, specifically in the arenas of alliances and U.S. dominance. Nevertheless, this article will not deal with policy shift, rather it will look at the wall in plain economic terms and the precedence behind these.
To that end, it is essential to examine the potential cost of Trump’s wall, an admittedly hard question to answer in part due to the fact that the dimensions of this wall seems to change frequently, and thus the the wall’s estimates. An internal report by the Department of Homeland Security states that the wall would cost around $21.6 billion and would take around three and a half years to build; Senate Democrats dispute this number. A report released by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee stated that the wall could cost around $70 billion to complete and $150 million a year to maintain. Moreover, Trump himself has not been consistent regarding what the cost of this wall would be. He has given several prices for his hypothetical wall: 4,5,6,7,8 and 20 billion dollars are all figures he has mentioned. This article will not take into account the prices Trump gives, rather, we will use the Department of Homeland Security’s estimate and that produced by the Senate Democrats.
At this point, it is also relevant to look into fiscal spending for 2017, and see how this hypothetical wall compares to other projects the United States is undertaking. Discretionary spending for 2017 was 6.3% of GDP or $1.2 trillion. Programs that come from this portion of fiscal revenue are varied but looking at specific programs in this budget does yield a better perspective of the wall’s cost. The most comparable program in terms of cost to the Department of Homeland Security’s estimate, is the United States spend on its “Atomic energy defense activities,” a cool $21.3 billion. Other programs include “Community and regional development” at $21.1 billion, “Farm income stabilization” at $20.4 billion, “Space flight, research and supporting activities” at $18.6 billion, “Federal litigative and judicial activities” at $17.4 billion, “Veterans education, training and rehabilitation” at $15.1 billion, “International security assistance” at $14.9 billion, “Disaster relief and insurance” at $9.4 billion, “Pollution control and abatement” at $8.8 billion and “Military construction” at $7.4 billion. As can be seen, all of these programs, vital to the functioning of the U.S. government, are less expensive than the most conservative estimate of the wall’s expense, leading us to believe that securing funding for the wall will be harder than otherwise expected. Nevertheless, there is one important distinction between the construction of the wall and the aforementioned programs: the $21.6 billion estimate is a one-time construction cost. In comparison, these other programs are yearly expenditures the government partakes in. Thus, it might be more appropriate to compare the $150 million annual maintenance cost to these programs rather than the cost of building the wall. While the maintenance cost may be significantly cheaper than the other programs, we must look into how willing Congress has historically been in approving funding for what can be called political agendas of previous presidents. Indeed, this wall is an especially pertinent example, one that would convince many of Trump’s supporters that he follows through on his promises, leading to a possible increase in his chances for re-election.
Looking back at the most recent presidency, President Obama also made costly promises. One example was to create the “Foreclosure Prevention Fund for Homeowners”. Obama, throughout his 2008 election campaign, stated that the purpose of this fund was to help homeowners refinance or sell their homes and asked for $10 billion to do so. A Congress, lead by the Democrats, approved $75 billion to this project through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) (through which $700 billion was allocated) and through the government sponsored home-loaning giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Although this amount was over seven times larger than the requested sum by Obama, it was in response to unique economic conditions.
In 2008 the United States suffered a significant financial crisis. The rhetoric “too big to fail” was invoked when approving bailout money that dwarfed the $75 billion amount sum mentioned above. In other words, Obama secured this amount of money during one of the largest periods of U.S. fiscal spending. The Foreclosure Prevention Fund for Homeowners turned out to be deemed a failure, reaching only 500,000 of the initial 9 million homeowners it was supposed to reach. Regardless, Obama was able to secure the funds. It is important to note that this $75 billion sum is more comparable to the estimates the Democrats have released for the wall. Given the economic boom the U.S. is currently enjoying, it is unlikely that Trump’s proposed wall would receive funding of similar proportions to Obama’s project. Troubled times call for increases in government spending, economic booms do not.
Trump is a different beast than Obama. He campaigned on several promises, some with the potential to incur additional spending, and many that require more money spent than Obama’s projects . For example, take Trump’s plan to create a $550 billion fund for infrastructure spending. Again for comparison, TARP was approved for $700 billion. It is not clear whether the money for the wall would be taken from this infrastructure fund, or if it would require additional government spending. Regardless, this fund seems to be quite absurd, costing nearly as much as Medicare did in 2017. It is important to re- emphasize that while TARP was a response to a crisis, this infrastructure fund does not make sense in this economic climate, making it less likely that Congress would approve additional spending. Moreover, tax cuts for the wealthy do not seem to make this proposal, nor the wall’s construction, more feasible in terms of cost. The tax cuts led to an increased budget deficit for 2018, which also is certainly a factor on how much Congress is willing to spend.
Another important aspect that must be taken into account is what past administrations have spent on securing the border, and the budget for the United States border patrol. The most recent actions taken by Congress in the matter of border patrol under the Trump presidency was to approve a sum of $1.6 billion to replace existing barriers and add new fencing in some areas. This sum was not to begin building the concrete wall that Trump campaigned on, nor is it to create barriers of the same magnitude. It could instead be better understood as a maintenance procedure. Although small when compared to the total cost of Trump’s wall, this sum is not miniscule. Past presidents have also taken steps to ensure border security. President Obama also increased staffing for border security, but a more relevant comparison would be the Secure Fence Act of 2006 signed by President Bush.
When the Bush presidency began in 2001, funding for border security was $4.6 billion, but by 2006, that sum had more than doubled to $10.4 billion. This act authorized the construction of hundreds of miles of new border wall. Nevertheless, an important factor in the rise of costs was the large increase in staffing of Border Security. In 2001 there were 9,000 border patrol agents, under this act this number was expected to more than double by 2008. Bush nearly achieved this goal, falling 500 border patrol agents short.
At the end of 2017 there were over 19,000 agents and the budget for border patrol was $18.9 billion. This figure is still less than the most conservative estimates of the wall given by Trump. Furthermore, the wall is more expensive than what Congress has historically approved for border security. The U.S. already spends vast amounts of money on border security and how effective they are with this spending is a topic for another debate. What is important to note is that Congress has shown willingness to protect its borders, but maybe not enough to merit the building of a wall.
It would be interesting to know how building a wall would affect the cost of border security in the long run; this effect is by far Trump’s best angle. The wall is expensive no matter what it is compared to. There is no escaping the price tag. As previously mentioned, past presidents have secured similar and larger amounts of money for their programs, but with the exception of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, they were a response to tense economic conditions and not migration. Congress has shown willingness to protect the border, but not enough to merit the building of such an expensive wall. If Trump is able to show that a wall would be effective enough in stopping immigration such that the U.S. could reduce the number of border patrol agents, and hence border patrol costs, then the wall becomes more economically feasible, and an intelligent investment.
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