The Defense Department for the first time supports ending statutory requirements for annual “unfunded priorities lists” — requests for spending on defense projects over and above presidential budgets, a top Pentagon official said in a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call.
The “wish lists,” as they are often called, regularly total billions of dollars — more than $24 billion in fiscal 2023 — much of which gets funded each year.
The lists began in the mid-1990s as requests from Congress, but since the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, they have become statutory requirements.
The Pentagon has tacitly gone along with the practice all these years, though from 2006 to 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates discouraged it and the dollar amounts on the lists dropped significantly.
Now, in a stark departure from the norm, the Defense Department is on record opposing those requirements and denouncing them as antithetical to fiscal discipline.
Congress should “reconsider the merits of this approach,” Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord wrote in a letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a critic of the wish lists and a member of the Armed Services Committee.
“The current statutory practice of having multiple individual senior leaders submit priorities for additional funding absent the benefit of weighing costs and benefits across the department is not an effective way to illuminate our top joint priorities,” wrote McCord, who said in the letter dated March 20 that he was speaking on behalf of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.
Austin and McCord are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley.
“The budget process requires making tough choices and setting clear priorities, and requesting billions of dollars in ‘unfunded requirements’ has been undermining that process,” Warren said in a statement. “I’m glad that DoD agrees we need to repeal the requirement to provide these ‘wish lists.’”
Priorities or wishes?
The $24 billion plus for wish lists in fiscal 2023 is a fairly typical amount for an annual total, though in some years the numbers have been higher and others lower.
Several service chiefs and regional commanders sent Congress just last week unfunded priorities lists for fiscal 2024. The partial total of their lists so far exceeds $12 billion and covers everything from money to procure an amphibious ship the Navy did not seek to funds for more U.S. warship missiles.
Many members of the defense committees view the wish lists — which some like to call risk lists — as practically tantamount to an official part of the annual budget request. Defense hawks say the lists illuminate military needs that otherwise would not be given as much attention and deference.
Accordingly, lawmakers usually are responsive to the generals and admirals extrabudgetary wishes and provide a lot of the money the officers seek.
When a project appears on an official unfunded priorities list, it gains a patina of credibility that it might not otherwise have.
Warren on a mission
To critics like Warren, though, the lists, which are not customary in nondefense departments and agencies, bloat the defense budget with projects that are sometimes not critically important, compared to other priorities, at least not in the current fiscal year.
Another adverse effect, Warren has said, is the department may not include certain projects in its regular budget request on the assumption that the brass will ask for them on a wish list — a practice that renders the actual budget incomplete.
In addition, Warren and other critics point out, spending on a wish list is not required to come with five-year cost projections, as is the case with the more disciplined regular budgetary process.
Warren, who announced Monday she is running for reelection in 2024, wrote the Pentagon in December and again in January urging officials there to reconsider the wish list practice. She has questioned virtually every senior Defense Department witness appearing before the Armed Services Committee this year about the issue.
In February, Warren and five other lawmakers wrote Austin urging him to try to scale back the wish lists and to support legislation that they all co-sponsored in the last Congress that would overturn the statutory requirements for the lists.
The signatories of the February letter included Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee who also serves on the Intelligence Committee.
In a sign of GOP discomfort with the Pentagon’s unfunded priorities practice, three fiscally conservative Republicans also signed: Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Mike Braun of Indiana and Rep. Tom McClintock of California.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington state Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also signed the letter.
“Unfunded priority lists may have started with good intentions,” Braun said in an email last month. “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.”
The national defense budget has grown in seven of the last eight years to $858 billion in fiscal 2023. In a few years, annual U.S. defense spending is expected to hit $1 trillion, though that remains a smaller percentage of the nation’s wealth than was the case, for example, during the Reagan-era buildup, and a wide array of global threats, many in Congress say, justifies the spending.