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Congress made $80 billion-plus in changes to defense budget

Congress shifted a sizeable chunk of the Pentagon's budget to reflect lawmakers' priorities

Some of Congress' relatively small changes to the defense budget escape scrutiny.
Some of Congress' relatively small changes to the defense budget escape scrutiny. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The fiscal 2023 Defense appropriations law contained at least $80 billion in changes to President Joe Biden’s Pentagon budget request, according to a previously undisclosed new Defense Department report and congressional documents. 

Lawmakers added fully $61.4 billion for hundreds of different projects that were not sought in Biden’s request for fiscal 2023, according to an August report to Congress produced by the Pentagon comptroller’s office and posted on that office’s site.

Notably, the report only counted additions to the budget that were individually worth $20 million or more.

The fiscal 2023 Defense appropriations law added a net $44 billion in total funding above the request. So, to make the $61.4 billion in unrequested projects fit under even that higher funding topline, lawmakers had to cut $17.4 billion worth of programs that the Defense Department wanted.

Those $78.8 billion in plus-or-minus alterations do not tell the full story, however.

CQ Roll Call reported in May that Congress added at least $12.2 billion to the fiscal 2023 Defense appropriations law for just research initiatives that were not in the president’s request — so called program increases.

The overwhelming majority of those research increases — comprising unreckoned billions of dollars — are individually worth less than $20 million.

Those increases would add at least a few billion dollars, perhaps closer to $10 billion, in funding hikes not covered by the comptroller’s report.

Consequently, the overall scope of Congress’s additions and subtractions to the defense budget in fiscal 2023 almost certainly exceeds $80 billion, and may be closer to $90 billion or more.

‘Dubious utility’

Congress has a duty to add to and subtract from presidential budgets for every federal department, and substantial changes to defense spending priorities are hardly new. 

But as the Defense Department’s base budget surged by 56 percent from fiscal 2017 through 2023, the magnitude of the congressional changes, mostly additions, has also swelled. 

Undoubtedly, many of Capitol Hill’s puts and takes are the result of prudent consideration by lawmakers and staff about what is best for the U.S. military. 

Yet critics said the scope of the pluses and minuses raises serious questions about how much Congress may be altering the budget not because it makes military sense but because it serves lawmakers’ personal political interests or helps favored contractors.

“The Pentagon’s own defense budget is hardly a disciplined exercise in smart spending, but at least it has a top-down logic to it that’s often lost when Congress begins larding it with its pet projects,” said Mark Thompson, a defense analyst with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group, in an email. “It’s a safe bet that a big chunk of this $61 billion boost is of dubious utility when it comes to national defense.”

Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, another nonpartisan group that monitors federal spending, said the scale of congressional changes to the defense budget is out of control. 

“The entire Department of Homeland Security appropriation for fiscal year 2023 was $61 billion,” Ellis said by email. “Lawmakers added an entire DHS worth of spending to the Pentagon budget. But it wasn’t all addition. They also pillaged part of the Pentagon’s budget for what — in many cases — were their own parochial interests.”

Defensible increases

A Defense Department official did not immediately provide a response to a query for this report.

The comptroller’s report to Congress on congressional additions to the defense budget has been required for two years and counting by language first included in the report accompanying the House’s fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. 

The fiscal 2022 total of congressional boosts to the defense budget, disclosed by CQ Roll Call last July, was slightly less than the fiscal 2023 total, or $58.6 billion.

The $61.4 billion in fiscal 2023 congressional additions includes a number of boosts aimed at dealing with higher than expected inflation, which affected Pentagon budgets for everything from jet fuel to housing for troops and their families. The boosts were not in the initial budget request, but Pentagon officials informally sought some of these hikes when lawmakers were writing the final version of the spending bill late last year.

Moreover, a portion of the funding added by Congress was for programs that some contend are needed by the military because they are on the armed services so-called unfunded priorities lists. These lists comprise billions of dollars worth of programs that the service chiefs and other senior leaders say in writing that they would like to see get more funding than requested, if Congress can find the funds to do so. 

Billions in boosts

But most of the increases were not sought even on the services’ unfunded lists.

Navy shipbuilding is typically a category of spending that receives generous appropriations, whether or not the vessels at issue are in the military’s plans for a given fiscal year.

The fiscal 2023 spending law was no exception.

The comptroller’s report describes congressional additions to the president’s request for shipbuilding that included about $1 billion to cover excess costs for ships approved in prior appropriations laws. Also added to the budget were $2.2 billion for an Arleigh Burke Class destroyer, a $250 million down payment for an amphibious assault ship and $645 million for two Expeditionary Medical Ships — none of them in the budget request.

The list of unsought hardware found in the appropriations law also includes mammoth infusions of appropriations for a variety of aircraft and other systems. 

These include $1.7 billion for 16 C-130J transports for the Air National Guard, another $1.7 billion for Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites, $570 million for 10 Combat Rescue Helicopters, $679 million for seven more Navy F-35s, $500 million for five V-22s and $554 million for four additional Compass Call electronic-warfare aircraft. 

What’s more, the report indicates several billion dollars were allocated for unrequested programs denoted merely as classified. 

The congressional report language that mandates the report on funding increases also states that this report must assess “whether and how” the program or activity receiving unrequested funding “does or does not meet requirements in support of the priorities articulated in” the most recent National Defense Strategy, which is the Pentagon’s fundamental strategic guidance.  

For the second year in a row, the Pentagon’s August report did not answer that question.

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