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Pentagon Leaders Admit Defense Funding “Wish Lists” Are a Bad Practice

Defense officials have been required to submit a budgetary “wish list” every year since 2017.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with reporters on her way to a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on March 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

As the U.S. defense budget continues to soar to record heights, even the Pentagon is coming out against the requirement that defense officials submit mandatory funding “wish lists” each year, a practice that tacks on tens of billions of dollars to already sky-high budget requests.

In response to efforts by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Department of Defense Comptroller Michael McCord both came out against the requirement for officials to send Congress an “unfunded priorities list” on top of the existing budget request. These wish lists, as they’re often called, amount to the yearly budgets of entire agencies; in 2024, the Pentagon asked for $24 billion on top of the $773 billion for its regular budget.

The leaders say that they support Warren’s efforts to repeal the requirement for the agency to submit “unfunded priorities lists.” Anti-war advocates and opponents of the requirement — which was implemented under President Donald Trump in 2017 — say that it represents yet another way to add absurd amounts of money to the defense budget.

In a letter to Warren sent last week, McCord wrote that Congress should “reconsider the merits of this approach,” and that having 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.”

Then, in a hearing on Tuesday, Austin appeared to admit that the label of “unfunded” is a misnomer and that, indeed, the Pentagon would be just fine with only the hundreds of billions of dollars it gets in funding every year. In an exchange with Warren in the Senate, Austin said that the Pentagon was able to carry out all of its operations with much lesser use of the wish lists during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and that the agency is able to craft a budget without the add-ons.

“Secretary Austin, does DoD have sufficient tools to address emerging threats without relying on the unfunded priorities list?” Warren asked.

“We do. And again, we account for that as we build the budget,” the Secretary of Defense said.

Warren said in a statement that such wish lists only undermine the budget-making process, allowing the Pentagon to circumvent normal procedures to grab more funding from federal coffers. “The budget process requires making tough choices and setting clear priorities, and requesting billions of dollars in ‘unfunded requirements’ has been undermining that process,” she said. “I’m glad that DoD agrees we need to repeal the requirement to provide these ‘wish lists’.”

The Pentagon’s support for ending the wish lists makes it abundantly clear that Congress is continuing the practice solely because lawmakers have a vested interest in funneling billions more to the Defense Department and private defense contractors; theoretically, the Pentagon’s stance should appeal to the deficit and fiscal responsibility hawks who endlessly criticize welfare spending while approving trillions of dollars for war and imperialism.

Anti-war advocates say ending the mandate would be an important step toward the ultimate goal of decreasing U.S. defense spending.

“These wish lists result in tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon budget increases for congressional pet projects and pork. No other agency has a mandated opportunity for a second bite at the budget apple,” said Lindsay Koshgarian, director of the National Priorities Project, in a statement emailed to Truthout. “Ending the wish list requirement — and ending the wish lists themselves — would be an important first step toward bringing Pentagon spending under control.”

Next year’s defense budget is set, yet again, to reach a record high. President Joe Biden has called for a towering $886 billion in military spending for 2024 — and Congress will likely tack on tens of billions more to that budget, as lawmakers customarily do, inching the country closer to the grim milestone of a $1 trillion annual military budget.

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