By Megan Scully, CQ Roll Call
The Pentagon’s plans to send Congress a $26 billion wish list of second-tier priorities for fiscal 2015 could come back to haunt the Defense Department as lawmakers sort through the upcoming budget request and maneuver to add back in favored programs that did not make the administration’s cut.
The intent of the wish list, or “investment fund,” is to demonstrate to Congress what the Pentagon would buy if its top line were not capped by the bipartisan budget agreement enacted late last year (PL 113-67). The law gave the department some relief from the fiscal 2014 and 2015 caps in the prescribed 2011 debt limit law (PL 112-25), but did not return defense or domestic discretionary spending to pre-sequester levels.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., recently told reporters he considers the anticipated $26 billion addendum to the budget an “impacts list,” delineating programs that are important but nonetheless could not be squeezed into the budget request.
Others, however, think it will give Congress ample justification to make significant changes to the request.
“It’s kind of an overflow valve,” explained Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This is almost inviting Congress to crack open the services’ plans and start tinkering,” he added.
The practice of sending Congress wish lists for defense spending is not a new one.
At the behest of the House Armed Services Committee, the chiefs of the military services used to routinely send lawmakers multibillion-dollar “unfunded-priorities lists” in the months after the release of the budget request. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates squelched the practice, considering it an end run around the formal and heavily vetted budget process.
This year’s wish list, however, will be somewhat different from those earlier lists drafted by the services.
For one, it comes as both the Pentagon and lawmakers are dealing with stringent budget caps that Congress seems unlikely to relax this year — a striking difference from the days of almost unconstrained growth in the Pentagon budget at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And unlike previous, more informal wish lists, the Pentagon is expected to send the “investment fund” to Capitol Hill at the time of the official budget request, presumably with the blessing of the White House. That could give service chiefs and lawmakers more cover when pushing to add their priorities back into the budget at the expense of other programs.
“It opens up an opportunity for playing the system that better budget discipline would close down,” said Gordon Adams, who was in charge of national security budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
Adams and other budget watchers are concerned that the fiscal 2015 package, coupled with a long-term budget forecast that is not expected to reflect the caps set for fiscal 2016 and beyond, will not reflect spending reality.
“It postpones the day of reckoning,” Adams said. “At some point the piper must be paid.”
But even with the budget caps in place, appropriators have some tricks at their disposal to make room in the budget for at least some of the items on the wish list. Those include tapping unobligated balances and beefing up the separate Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to the discretionary budget caps. In the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill (PL 113-76), for instance, Congress boosted OCO accounts by $4.5 billion above the request.
Meanwhile, some hawks in Congress are not convinced that the wish list will accurately reflect the extent of the budget shortfall. House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., last week called it “an edited White House list tailored to scoring political points.”
McKeon is calling for a return to the traditional unfunded-priorities lists, and he has requested each of the service chiefs, the chief of the National Guard Bureau and the commanders of the military’s combatant commands to detail their shortfalls.
Specifically, McKeon wrote military leaders to ask them to send him by March 4 — the same day as the budget release — “the programs and requirements that have not been selected for funding in the President’s budget request but are necessary to fulfill a validated requirement or combatant commander priority.”
Adams dubbed McKeon’s requests as the “wish lists that didn’t make the wish list.”
But a GOP committee aide said McKeon is seeking the items the military needs to meet the current national security strategy.