Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), speaks with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), at right, ahead of U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Lawmakers cave to ‘wish lists’ and give the Pentagon money it doesn’t need

All but one Senate Armed Services Committee member recently succumbed to this wasteful exercise.

In May, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released a Department of Defense budget request for the new fiscal year (FY 2022) totaling $715 billion, $11.3 billion above the current fiscal year’s total. The Pentagon — and the Biden administration broadly — proposed increasing defense spending even as the nation winds down its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, confronts more pressing non-defense crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, and, fiscal hawks will point out, faces record federal debt and deficit levels. Unfortunately, things just got worse for advocates of a smaller defense budget.

In late July the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to add a whopping $25 billion to the Pentagon budget at a hearing that was closed to the public. The vote was not particularly close either, with Republicans and Democrats on the committee joining together to pass the 3.5 percent increase by a landslide 25 to 1 vote. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the lone senator to oppose the big budget increase.

Some national defense policy and budget observers wondered, in the immediate aftermath of this concerning news, where the $25 billion in taxpayer-funded slush would go. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a freshman senator facing re-election in 2022 in a swing state, answered with a statement on his vote (emphasis mine).

“This bipartisan increase in defense spending was necessary,” he said, “to support a number of unfunded requirements from the military branches and combatant commanders critical to getting our service members the tools, training, and resources they need.”

“Unfunded requirements” may sound a bit like Washington budget and spending speak, but the process can be summed up thusly: the branches and combatant commands that make up the U.S. military put billions of dollars in goodies on off-budget “wish lists” that they sent to Congress after the Defense Department submitted its budget, and it appears lawmakers were more than eager to fulfill many of these requests.

These wish lists are not new. A cross-ideological spectrum of civil society organizations and editorial board members have panned the wish list practice, which critics say undermines civilian leadership at the Pentagon, leads to a more chaotic and disorganized budget process, and adds to the taxpayer’s tab for military spending at a time when policymakers should be looking for smart places to cut. Outside groups have asked Congress to rein in the wish lists, by repealing statutory requirements for the branches and commands to furnish the lists to lawmakers every year. These groups have also urged Secretary Austin to take independent action at the Department, to make these multibillion-dollar lists smaller in the first place.

The branches certainly did not show a smaller appetite for wish list goodies in the upcoming fiscal year, submitting at least $17 billion in requests. The combatant commands sent another set of wishes that combined to several billion dollars total. And rather than offer some serious scrutiny of these lists, questioning the nation’s military leaders on how a set of multibillion-dollar requests can truly be “priorities” if they are “unfunded,” it seems like senators on the Armed Services Committee by and large acquiesced to these expensive requests. What good is the congressional power of the purse if, when it comes to the defense budget, military leaders actually control the purse strings?

Here Sen. Warren deserves some credit. Although I certainly don’t agree with Sen. Warren on everything, the senator took a courageous stance in being the only person on the committee to oppose an even more bloated defense budget.

And the bloat is particularly gruesome on the Armed Services Committee’s blockbuster $25 billion budget boost this year. Among the goodies going the military’s way are “funding for major weapons such as the F-35 fighter and [funding for] an extra Navy destroyer.” Look no further than the pages of Responsible Statecraft for evidence that additional funding for the F-35 and Navy shipbuilding are neither the wisest nor the most prudent uses of taxpayer dollars.

With this kind of waste, it’s easy to despair, but a better question to ask is where do lawmakers, advocates, and activists go from here? Well, the first step is for legislators and outside groups opposed to the budget increase to fight it, both in the House and in the Senate. Committee approval for an authorization of appropriation is far different from President Biden signing a budget increase into law, though the Senate Armed Services move will likely be popular among both Republicans and hawkish Democrats. Senate appropriators still need to decide how much to appropriate, and the House will get its own say on two fronts: authorization and appropriation.

Looking forward to next year, Congress should stop the practice of requiring service branches and combatant commands to give wish lists to lawmakers year in and year out. And Secretary Austin should take up the leadership mantle last championed by former Secretary Robert Gates, who cut wish lists down in size by about 90 percent from one year to the next. Even absent Congressional requirements, Secretary Austin probably will not be able to completely stop the wish list practice. However, he can cut them down to a much more sustainable and responsible size.

In short, the $25 billion increase to the defense budget is frustrating but not surprising. The military essentially gave Congress an easy-to-follow roadmap for boosting the budget by 3.5 percent. But above is a roadmap for lawmakers and military leaders to stop the wasteful practice. They would be wise — and doing right by taxpayers — to follow the latter roadmap.

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