Lawmakers in both chambers plan to file legislation Thursday that would delete statutory requirements for Defense Department leaders to give Congress so-called unfunded priorities lists.
The bills would not be acted on this year but are instead viewed by supporters as a message to the Pentagon and Congress ahead of the fiscal 2024 budget cycle.
The annual UPL documents, commonly known as wish lists, detail spending on defense programs that the president did not seek. They have become, for all practical purposes, addendums to the annual budget request.
Bills to kill the legal mandates for the practice have some bipartisan support in both chambers, but they will be resisted by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who consider the lists essential to garnering support for higher defense spending.
To supporters of the lists, they inform lawmakers about priorities that should be funded if Congress can find the funds. To critics, the lists effectively expand each year’s defense budget request in an unacceptable way that nondefense programs do not.
Congress typically funds most of the defense UPLs — and then adds still more money for additional projects. In fiscal 2022, Congress added $58 billion the Pentagon did not request for a variety of programs, the Defense Department said in a first-of-its kind report disclosed by CQ Roll Call earlier this year.
In the Senate, the UPL repeal bill will be offered by Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and independent Angus King of Maine, both Armed Services members, and Republicans Mike Braun of Indiana and Mike Lee of Utah.
“These wish lists have become the Pentagon’s primary tool to boost an already excessive top line, and these budget games need to stop,” Warren told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “This new, bipartisan bill would help ensure that Congress does its part by eliminating this wasteful requirement.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, Warren added, “should also act to stop the Pentagon’s bureaucratic money-grabbing,”
Braun, in a statement to CQ Roll Call, said the national debt is a security threat, and repealing the mandate for defense-related UPLs would help stabilize the budget process.
“Unfunded priority lists may have started with good intentions, but as Congress’s budget dysfunction has gotten worse it has morphed into another budgeting gimmick with negative results such as non-necessities being included in the budget and critical necessities ending up on a wish list,” Braun said.
“The unfunded priorities mandate is a lazy way to load up the defense budget with pet projects that couldn’t be justified with the budget’s parameters and an invitation for commanders to end-run the president,” McClintock told CQ Roll Call by email. “It needs to stop.”
$50 billion-plus in 2022 wishes
The practice has gone on for decades, but it was first required by law in the fiscal 2017 NDAA. The number of departments, agencies and commands covered by the mandate has expanded since then.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted that the practice be curbed during his tenure from 2006 to 2011, and they were significantly scaled back at that time.
But they have crept back up in size ever since then.
In fiscal 2023, the leaders of the armed services, the combatant commands, the National Guard Bureau and the Missile Defense Agency submitted separate lists totaling some $24 billion — all for items that did not make the president’s budget.
Separately, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which develops and builds atomic weapons, is also required by law to submit such a list. In fiscal 2023, the agency sought an additional $500 million that was not in the president’s request for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility.
The NNSA unfunded priority list would not be covered by the bills being filed Thursday.
The Defense Department’s $24 billion in unfunded requests for fiscal 2023 totaled more than the entire budget requests of some departments and agencies, according to a coalition of conservative and liberal taxpayer advocacy groups that pushed for a UPL repeal in an October letter to lawmakers.
CQ Roll Call reported earlier this month on an additional “unfunded priority list” that Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord sent Congress in November.
That spreadsheet detailed fully $29.57 billion in programs that were not part of the president’s March budget request — the overwhelming majority of which were also in addition to the earlier $24 billion in Defense Department unfunded requests.
‘Wasteful and distortive’
The coalition of watchdog groups had wanted to amend the Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2023 NDAA so it would delete the statutory requirements for the UPLs. That committee bill never got a vote on the Senate floor. Instead, negotiators from the two chambers reconciled the House-passed bill with the Senate committee’s bill. The House passed that final measure Dec. 8, and the Senate is expected to clear it this week.
One of the groups calling for a halt to the defense wish lists is the National Taxpayers Union.
“Wish lists are among the top factors pushing the Pentagon topline higher and higher each year,” said Andrew Lautz, director of federal policy at the National Taxpayers Union, in an email to CQ Roll Call. “This bipartisan, bicameral legislation would help slow down what’s become a wasteful and distortive budgeting practice.”
Julia Gledhill, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, another watchdog group in the coalition, told CQ Roll Call by email that only defense-related departments and agencies are required to submit wish lists to Congress.
“They’re unnecessary at best, and they bypass a budget process Congress already struggles to follow — to the detriment of both the taxpayer and transparent policymaking,” Gledhill said.