WASHINGTON—House Speaker Paul Ryan says President Donald Trump’s border wall will cost US$12 billion to $15 billion—and Ryan says Congress will pay for it by this fall.
The Wisconsin Republican made his comments to reporters in Philadelphia, where GOP lawmakers are holding their annual strategy retreat.
Ryan was pressed on whether the wall’s price tag would be added to the deficit—or whether Congress would find some ways to offset the cost. But he wouldn’t commit.
The point, Ryan says, is that Congress will pay for “the construction of a physical barrier on the border.”
Trump is set to speak to the lawmakers later Thursday—a day after signing an executive order calling for the wall.
What Ryan means is U.S. taxpayers will foot the bill, starting with about $100 million already in the Department of Homeland Security account that amounts to a small down payment. Then it’s up to the Republican-led Congress to come up with possibly billions of dollars more, cutting money for other domestic programs to finance the wall.
On Wednesday, Trump promised “immediate construction” would begin on the border wall, telling ABC News that planning is starting immediately. He again vowed that Mexico would pay the U.S. back, though Mexican officials have said it will never happen.
And it’s not just Mexicans that think the wall is a bad idea.
“The facts have not changed. Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” said GOP Rep. Will Hurd, whose sprawling West Texas swing district encompasses more than 800 miles of the border. “Many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.”
Hundreds of miles of the border are so rugged and inhospitable that it doesn’t make sense to even try to build.
“There’s any number of complications,” said former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., citing obstacles such as Indian reservations and national parks and forests. And much of the remaining 1,300 miles is very rough terrain, with steep construction costs and a limited return for the dollar. “It’s expensive and it’s complicated.”
And in Texas, almost all of the land along the border is privately owned. When former President George W. Bush tried to build border fencing starting in 2006, he faced stiff opposition from local ranchers and farmers, many of whom took the government to court on plans to use their land.
In many areas along the Rio Grande the fencing is built well inside the United States, as far as a mile north of the Rio Grande, to ensure that the structure doesn’t interfere with the flow of the river or is built on solid ground. The middle of the channel marks the internal border and a 1970 treaty with Mexico requires that structures built there not interfere with water flow.
A popular golf course near the border in Brownsville was cut off from the rest of the city by border fencing and was forced to close in 2015.
“We have built a fence along the border almost as much as we possibly can without violating tribal laws, environmental requirements, and taking over peoples’ personal, private property,” said Michelle Mrdeza, who worked for the House Appropriations panel during the fence debate of the mid-2000s.
The existing blockade—roughly 350 miles to block pedestrians and 300 miles to block vehicles—has already been built along the southern border. That fencing was built in the areas that are most vulnerable to illegal crossings.
“Insofar as the problem is a physical barrier, we’ve basically addressed that issue,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who chaired the congressional panel that funded the border fence when Democrats controlled Congress. “This focus, this fixation on a wall and pouring untold billions of dollars into a wall is foolishness.”
Cost estimates prepared a decade ago already varied widely. A 2009 Government Accountability Office analysis put costs at $6.5 million a mile for pedestrian fencing and $1.8 million per mile for vehicular blockades. An actual wall constructed of concrete or brick would be more costly and difficult.
Ryan, in an interview Wednesday on MSNBC, said Congress will work with Trump on the upfront financing for the wall. Asked about estimates that the project could cost $8 billion to $14 billion, Ryan said: “That’s about right.”
Trump has repeatedly promised that Mexico will pay for his wall, though neither he nor his allies in Congress are able to articulate how. The president of Mexico is emphatic that his country will not pick up the tab.
“I regret and reject the decision of the U.S. to build the wall,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Wednesday in a nationally televised address in his country. “I have said time and again, Mexico will not pay for any wall.”
Already, U.S. agencies have been told to scrub their budgets for savings that could be used for the wall.
“These taxpayer dollars would be better spent on investing … to find cures for cancer and other diseases, spending on hospitals and doctors to care for our veterans, helping communities with clean water investments, supporting police in our communities,” said Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.