Tuesday, February 12, 2019
In a word: No. At least not without specific congressional authorization.
Remember that President Obama tried a similar move with the cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act. The CSR was designed to reimburse insurance companies for keeping costs low for certain purchasers on the exchanges. But Congress zero-funded the CSR line-item. The Obama Administration went ahead with payments, on the theory that CSR was part-and-parcel of the well integrated ACA--and payments were therefore allowed, even if not specifically authorized.
But when the (then-Republican) House of Representatives sued, the district court ruled the payments unlawful. (The court wrote that "[t]he [ACA] unambiguously appropriates money for Section 1401 premium tax credits but not for Section 1402 reimbursements to insurers. Such an appropriation cannot be inferred. None of the Secretaries' extra-textual arguments--whether based on economics, "unintended" results, or legislative history--is persuasive.") The court stayed an injunction pending appeal. But the Trump Administration reversed course.
In doing so, the Trump Administration adopted the same legal analysis as the district court that struck the payments. (Again: this was a switch from the legal position in the Obama Administration.) In language that's telling and relevant to the wall question, the Trump DOJ wrote this:
There is no more fundamental power granted to the Legislative Branch than its exclusive power to appropriate funds. And the Executive Branch cannot unilaterally spend money that Congress has not appropriated. Congress's repeated choice to deny funding for CSR payments is thus Congress's prerogative. When Congress refuses to appropriate money for a program, the Executive is required to respect that decision.
So, no: By the Administration's own reckoning, and by district court precedent, absent specific congressional authorization to do so, President Trump cannot move money around to fund the wall.