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Lawmakers to Pentagon: Curtail defense spending ‘wish lists’

Defense Department regularly requests billions of additional dollars outside of budget

Senate Armed Services Committee member Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is a signatory on a bipartisan letter urging the Pentagon to cut back its "unfunded priorities" lists.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is a signatory on a bipartisan letter urging the Pentagon to cut back its "unfunded priorities" lists. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Influential lawmakers from both parties urged the Defense secretary in a letter Tuesday to curtail the department’s submission to Congress of “unfunded priorities lists” — annual requests for billions of dollars in military spending above White House budget proposals.

“The Department of Defense must show taxpayers that it is a responsible steward of its funds,” wrote four senators and two representatives in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III that was obtained by CQ Roll Call. “That must begin with eliminating the practice of sending Congress bloated wish lists for additional funds on top of its core budget submissions.”

The letter was signed by an unlikely coalition. The signatories were Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Angus King, I-Maine, both of whom are members of the Armed Services Committee; Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus; plus three fiscally conservative Republicans: Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Mike Braun of Indiana and Rep. Tom McClintock of California.

The bipartisan, bicameral composition of the letter’s signatories underscores how the defense budget could be a major issue in 2023 as a growing number of Republicans, especially in the House, are deviating from the party’s traditional pattern of all but exempting military spending from fiscal austerity.

The half-dozen lawmakers asked Austin to reduce the use of the unfunded priorities requests, starting with next month’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal, and to support legislation that would eliminate statutory requirements that the Pentagon submit such supplementary requests annually.

The Pentagon did not immediately reply Tuesday to a request for comment.

‘Budget gamesmanship’

Supporters of the unfunded priorities lists say they give Congress information about defense systems that may deserve funding even if the White House does not agree. And, these proponents add, it is Congress’ duty to add and subtract from budget requests rather than rubber stamp them.

On the other hand, critics of the unfunded requests say their submission to Congress effectively forms an addendum to the formal budget that helps inflate defense spending. Nondefense departments and agencies do not have similar lists of any appreciable size, budget experts say.

The additional funding is often for nice-to-have, not critical programs, the critics argue. At the same time, the lawmakers said in their letter to Austin, when the unfunded priorities lists include important initiatives that have been offloaded there from the regular budget, it artificially understates the regular budget.

“We are increasingly concerned that budget gamesmanship is leading to the placement of critical programs in ‘unfunded priorities’ lists, rather than the Department’s initial budget which should be accurately reflecting our true national security priorities,” they wrote.

Ballooning budgets

Last year’s budget cycle exemplified the Pentagon’s practice of submitting to Congress not just a regular defense spending request but also billions more dollars on wish lists.

Within a few weeks of President Joe Biden’s $813 billion fiscal 2023 defense budget submission to Congress last March, the leaders of the military services, the combatant commands, the National Guard Bureau and the Missile Defense Agency submitted separate lists totaling some $24 billion for one year alone for items that did not make the president’s budget.

Then, in November, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord sent Congress a list of $29.57 billion in programs that had also not been part of the president’s March budget and most of which had also not been included in the earlier $24 billion worth of supplementary requests.

In recent years, the programs on the unfunded priorities lists tend to be funded by Congress. Those wish-list additions form a substantial share of the additional spending that lawmakers regularly insert on top of the Pentagon’s regular budget request.

Congress appropriated $858 billion for defense in fiscal 2023, including money for Ukraine and other emergencies, compared to the $813 billion Biden request. The defense budget has gone up from year to year in seven of the last eight years.

Lists have waxed and waned

Since at least the mid-1990s, the unfunded lists have been a feature of Pentagon budget advocacy, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates succeeded in significantly scaling back the size and cost of the lists between 2006 and 2011, but they have grown back since then.

The authors of Tuesday’s letter to Austin cited Gates’ push and hinted that Austin should do the same.

The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act was the first law that required the service chiefs and combatant commanders to submit unfunded lists. The number of flag officers and senior defense officials who are required by law to submit such lists has expanded since then.

The signers of Tuesday’s letter filed legislation in both chambers in the last Congress that would eliminate the statutory requirements for Defense Department unfunded lists — and they asked Austin to support such legislation in the new Congress.

“We urge the Department to support this bill and will continue to work with our colleagues to repeal this wasteful and unnecessary requirement that undermines budget discipline,” the lawmakers wrote.

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