Skip to content

Members want $26 billion for programs the Pentagon didn’t seek

Projects generally sought by far-flung Defense establishment or by contractor or university

The House version of the annual defense spending bill includes $675 million for tiltrotor aircraft the Navy did not request.
The House version of the annual defense spending bill includes $675 million for tiltrotor aircraft the Navy did not request. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images file photo)

House and Senate appropriators have added into their two fiscal 2024 Defense spending bills a combined $25.7 billion the Pentagon did not formally seek for more than 1,200 research and procurement projects, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of a watchdog group’s previously undisclosed database.

The House-passed Defense appropriations bill would add $10.7 billion into these weapons accounts for 580 different programs. The Senate’s companion measure contains nearly $15 billion inserted by senators for an almost completely different set of 636 weapons projects, according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense database.

If history is a guide, the two sets of increases will mostly just be added together in the final bill, which appropriators hope to finish writing by early February, when the Defense Department’s funding under the current stopgap spending bill expires. 

On top of the proposed additions for military research and procurement, appropriators are poised to add as yet unreckoned billions of dollars in unrequested spending this fiscal year for other categories of defense spending — from facilities maintenance to medical research.

Members of Congress have a duty to write spending bills as they see fit. But the fiscal implications of all the congressional tweaking — for both the Pentagon budget and the wider federal discretionary budget — are not widely appreciated.

It is the equivalent of running another Cabinet department each year. 

In fiscal year 2023 law, members of Congress inserted into the Defense spending bill a minimum of $61.4 billion for all categories of military spending, two-thirds of it for research and procurement of military equipment, according to a Pentagon report disclosed by CQ Roll Call in October. 

That sum is the equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security budget for the same fiscal year. 

Just the $26 billion that may be added to the defense research and procurement budget in fiscal 2024 is nearly as much as it would cost in the same time frame to fund a second Space Force or execute another Navy shipbuilding budget.

“The Pentagon spending bill has become an all-you-can-add buffet for lawmakers looking to fund military projects that benefit their districts or drive profits for their campaign contributors,” said Gabe Murphy, a policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Pentagon spending should reflect national security needs and strategy, not parochial political interests or corporate profits.”

Inscrutable sums

It is hardly new for Congress to add considerable funds for their favored defense programs. But the growing cost of lawmakers’ hundreds of additions to the defense bill each year has received little discussion as a distinct issue, partly because the vast majority of the projects are individually not top-dollar or high-profile. 

Also not well known is the purpose of most of the projects, which members of Congress supported them, whether they proved useful, and how often more than one entity bid for the work.

Because the total amount of defense money available to appropriators each year is limited by topline deals cut by leadership, adding money for one thing generally requires a cut elsewhere. Congress subtracted $17.4 billion from sundry defense programs in fiscal 2023, even with a $44 billion increase in the topline. 

The topline for fiscal 2024 has not been set yet, and as a result, neither has the final sum of money available for congressional additions. 

The president asked for $826.6 billion for fiscal 2024 programs covered by the Defense appropriations bill. The House version of that bill proposes slightly more, or $826.9 billion, while the Senate has recommended $831.8 billion, thanks to several billion in so-called emergency appropriations.

‘Regular process’

The lion’s share of the added weapon projects, especially the research programs, are not even known about in the Pentagon’s upper echelons, according to defense officials and lobbyists who have requested anonymity. 

Still, the projects are generally sought by someone in the far-flung Defense Department establishment or by a contractor or a university, supporters say. And Appropriations Committee staff vet the projects, even if critics say they and their bosses are inclined to include in the bill what members want to see included.

What’s more, sometimes appropriators make cuts to requested initiatives in order to avoid allocating money that will not be well spent. In so doing, they may also free up funds to pay for their own priorities. 

The Defense Department did not immediately provide a response to a request for comment.

Appropriations Committee aides defended the addition of hundreds of research and procurement projects as necessary.

“These increases include unfunded requirements of DOD and adjustments DOD asked for following the submission of the budget request to account for inflation or emergent requirements,” a Senate Appropriations Committee Republican staffer said. “In some instances, DOD relies upon congressional increases to keep production lines open or to sustain readiness of the military.”

A House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee aide said the congressional funding infusions for weapons projects in their districts are part of the “regular process.” 

“Ultimately,” the aide said, “it is Congress’ responsibility to write the funding bills each year.”

Not even on wish lists

None of the 1,216 proposed increases for fiscal 2024 defense research and procurement projects were a part of the president’s formal budget request. 

Moreover, only a mere 2 percent of the proposed additions, or 7 percent by dollar value, were even found on “unfunded priorities lists” for fiscal 2024 that Defense Department leaders sent Congress, the Taxpayers for Common Sense data indicates. 

These lists are considered by some to be major upward drivers of the Pentagon budget, but in reality they are just a miniscule subset of the congressional additions.

For some of the weapons increases proposed this year, members of Congress would add money above the amount requested by the White House in order to buy more of something than the Pentagon wanted. 

But for most of the increases — and the overwhelming proportion of the research projects — members created entirely new initiatives. 

In some cases, members continued programs that Congress had previously launched but that Defense Department leaders have not sought to continue since they were begun. 

Bringing home bacon

The beneficiaries of the fiscal 2024 funding increases for defense research and procurement include some programs netting hundreds of millions each — such as $1.2 billion in the Senate bill to start building a destroyer ahead of the Navy’s schedule or $675 million in the House bill to procure V-22 tiltrotor aircraft than the Navy did not seek. 

But most of the unrequested programs cost in the single-digit millions of dollars and go to research initiatives at labs, contractors and other installations across the country. They are described only briefly in the committee reports, buried in funding tables, using arcane phrases such as “refractory metal alloys for hypersonics” and “ion trap quantum computing.”

One appropriator, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., claimed in a July statement to have “secured” $832 million in this year’s Senate Defense appropriations bill for 21 different projects, a “significant portion of which will go to West Virginia.”

The West Virginia projects range from artificial intelligence to counterterrorism, and they benefit organizations ranging from Marshall University to the West Virginia National Guard, as well as creating a Defense Threat Reduction Agency outpost in the Mountain State. 

No measures of effectiveness

The press, the public and members of Congress outside the Appropriations Committees have little means of knowing what benefits come from all this spending. 

As CQ Roll Call reported in May, there is no indication that any audit agency is studying the effectiveness or efficiency of this spending, the effects of the cuts required to pay for it, or the degree to which the contracts executed under these programs are vied for by more than one bidder.

These increases are not considered earmarks because they are competitively awarded, at least nominally.

But in many cases, the recipient of the award is known well before the contract is open for bidding, sometimes because only one company or organization has the expertise to provide the technology and sometimes because of a lawmaker’s influence on the process, lobbyists and other defense insiders told CQ Roll Call earlier this year.

The unrequested funding additions are rarely mentioned in hearings. The member of Congress who pushed for the funding is not noted in the tables.

“The lack of transparency is stunning,” Taxpayers for Common Sense’s Murphy said. “If lawmakers think squeezing tens of billions of dollars for these projects and programs into an already-bloated Pentagon budget makes sense, then they should have to put their name on these adds and offer some justification.”

Ballooning funding tables

The quantity and cost of the military research and procurement projects added to the Defense spending bills has swelled in recent years. 

The number of spending increases enacted into law for just defense research programs grew each year between fiscal 2021 and 2023, from 600 to 776 to 996, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. 

Last year, in the House’s fiscal 2023 Defense appropriations bill, members added 411 funding increases for research programs, while the Senate’s companion bill added 580. The final Defense spending measure essentially added together the two sets of increases for research spending to get to the 996 contained in the conference report. 

In the final fiscal 2022 Defense spending law, defense research and procurement increases amounted to $27.6 billion of the $58.5 billion in total unrequested defense spending, the Pentagon said in its report on congressional increases to that year’s military budget. 

For fiscal 2023, the research and procurement increases comprised $40.3 billion of the $61.4 billion in total additions.

Recent Stories

Fiscal 2024 spending finale starts to take shape

Security fence to go up at Capitol for State of the Union

California has no shortage of key House races on Tuesday

Alabama, Arkansas races to watch on Super Tuesday

Over the Hill — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP reverses course on Jan. 6 footage, will no longer blur faces