The Border Wall: What's Stopping the President?
Jay Goyal
February 18, 2018

“Build a wall! Build a wall!” Shouts of “build a wall” echoed through venues during President Trump’s campaign rallies two years ago. It was one of his signature campaign promises. A wall between United States and Mexico, President Trump assured the public, would deter illegal immigrants from entering the United States.


Fast forward almost two years: President Trump has been in office for 12 months but there is no wall and nobody is building one. He still wants the wall. Now that he is President, what’s stopping him?

The answer requires an understanding of the checks and balances between the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial.

Budget Authority: Congress Needs to Pay for the Wall

The President is part of the executive branch, which includes his cabinet and all of the government agencies. Although he has a lot of power, there are things he cannot do without approval from Congress (the legislative branch). These approvals from Congress act as a “check” on the President, so that he cannot just do what he wants on his own.

One of the most important checks that Congress has on the President is money. Congress decides how much money the executive branch can spend to enforce our laws. And they do not just give the President $4 trillion (that is how much the federal government spends!) and say “do the best you can with this.” Instead, Congress sets aside money for specific agencies and projects at a very detailed level. This is called the budget. The executive branch has to work within this budget to accomplish their goals.

Let’s see an example. In 2016, Congress outlined a $580 billion budget for the Department of Defense, the agency responsible for our military. The graphic below shows a breakdown of that budget, highlighting the aircraft category. Notice how the budget assigns a dollar amount for each type of aircraft. Other categories also list funding to very small amounts.

Example of level of detail in the budget for the Department of Defense

Since the President cannot use money already dedicated to another part of the budget to pay for the wall, he must ask Congress for new money. The President has proposed that Congress include $18 billion in the 2018 budget for the wall. Many Republicans in Congress support the idea, while most Democrats believe it is a bad way to spend government money. The President can try to influence Congress or influence the public to demand the wall, but ultimately he does not control if it is funded. Congress is still deciding what to do.

Budget authority is a very important check that Congress (the legislative branch) has over the President (the executive branch). He cannot spend money he does not have; the President needs Congress to agree to pay for things. Until Congress provides money for the wall, it will not be built.

Legal Issues: The Courts Can Block the Wall

Even as Congress decides on funding the wall, the issue may not end there. The judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court and other federal courts, can also limit the President’s actions. They don’t proactively support or oppose new laws or the President’s actions. Instead, when someone challenges a law or how it is being enforced, the judicial branch listens to their case in court and decides who is right.

For the border wall, California has already sued the federal government, claiming the wall is illegal because it’s impact on the environment has not been reviewed, which is required by the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. The executive branch has responded that other laws for protecting our borders state they don’t have to do the reviews. The legal issues are complex and a federal court judge, Gonzalo Curiel, is deciding if the prior laws conflict enough to warrant a trial. If Judge Curiel decides the case should go to trial, then the fate of the wall will be up to him.

Suing the President may seem rare, but it is more common than you may think. The federal government has been sued over 100 times since President Trump took office. Prior Presidents have also been sued many times. It is how judicial branch, via the actions of citizens, can check the power of the President.

What’s stopping the President?

Whether you agree or disagree with building the wall, the process of trying to get it built is a great example of our government’s system of checks and balances at work. For new initiatives like the border wall, the President needs Congress to approve and pay for it. Also, the President must ensure other laws are being followed in building the wall, otherwise the judicial branch may step in to block it.

Dig Deeper:

  • Read a list of the checks and balances between the three branches: link
  • Explore where the federal government spends all its money: link
  • Read the arguments for both sides of the wall conflict: link


An American Budget: Fiscal Year 2019. U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2018, An American Budget: Fiscal Year 2019,
“Military Budget of the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Feb. 2018,
Spagat, Elliot. “Judge Leans toward Asserting Right to Rule on Border Wall.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 9 Feb. 2018,