The federal government has been largely shut down for almost three weeks as a result of President Trump’s demand that Congress provide at least $5 billion to start building a wall on the border with Mexico. The new Democratic House, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is holding firm to its insistence that it won’t provide any funding for a wall whatsoever. Trump has now threatened to declare a state of emergency (which he may or may not have the legal authority to do) and potentially order the Army Corps of Engineers to start construction of the wall, using money appropriated by Congress for disaster relief.
This would be an extraordinary move by the President and an extremely controversial one. Legal challenges could hold it up, even if the government was reopened in the meantime. But for a moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether this is legal, or even whether building a wall is necessary. Instead, I want to examine the idea of having the Army Corps of Engineers build a border wall – and suggest that it’s not as unprecedented as it may seem. In fact, the Corps of Engineers has played a central role in infrastructure building since the earliest days of American history.
The Army Corps of Engineers today primarily focuses its efforts on environmental projects such as cleaning up hazardous waste, restoring ecosystems and maintaining wetlands, improving navigation on the nation’s rivers and lakes, as well as military construction projects in combat zones. The Corps is also involved in helping to rebuild areas affected by natural disasters.
But in the nation’s early years, Army engineers built infrastructure projects of all kinds across the country, including roads, canals, lighthouses and railroads. Engineers also cleared rivers and streams, and built piers and harbors. The Corps of Topographical Engineers, which was for most of this period a separate entity, conducted surveys about the geography, geology, and mineralogy of the expanding territorial possessions of the United States. At a time when private engineering expertise was scarce, West Point-trained engineers were loaned by the Army to private corporations where they helped to design and build the country’s first railroads such as the Baltimore & Ohio (as early as 1824), and many of those same engineers later would leave the Army and become the heads of the railroad companies. Much of the young nation’s infrastructure in the years prior to the Civil War simply would not have existed without the efforts of the Army.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, the extensive work that the Army Corps of Engineers was involved in was crucial for the economic development of the United States. When you combine this with the military’s role in expanding the nation’s territorial boundaries (both through wars of expansion as well as battles against native tribes that allowed white settlers to take over their lands) and preserving the rule of law internally through its use as a tool of enforcement, it becomes clear that the young nation’s political economy would have looked radically different without the actions of the military.
None of this speaks to the question of whether a border wall is a good idea, or whether the president has any authority to declare a national emergency for this purpose, but it does help contextualize the role of the Army Corps of Engineers as a possible tool for doing so.