By Frank Oliveri
Republicans are likely to pounce on the Pentagon’s $34 billion list of unfunded priorities as evidence that President Barack Obama is intentionally underfunding the military.
The Pentagon released the list late Thursday, with breakdowns of each service’s wish list for additional funds to pay for training and personnel costs, facility modernization and weapons modernization. Also included, were lists from most of the major military commands and the National Guard.
Indeed, in a year when parochial battles will be amplified by immovable spending limits, the wish lists could intensify infighting among lawmakers. Several GOP hawks have recently expressed anger at the military’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which they believe is too resource-focused rather than threats- and needs-focused.
Frustrations with the budget boiled over in a hearing Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee, in which J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a senior member of the panel, questioned why, if the military strategy was unconstrained by available dollars, the president did not include a congressionally mandated 11th aircraft carrier in his budget submissions.
“Why didn’t the president include the 11th carrier in there?” Forbes asked. “He had an opportunity to do that, because he wasn’t restrained on his budget. That’s the law. Every single contingency operation plan we have calls for that. Why didn’t he put a carrier in there?”
Understanding the political fallout the wish lists could create, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made clear that he was publishing the list under orders from Congress and that he would not lobby for the additional money until the federal government had the revenue to pay for it, as well as an overlapping $26 billion request for a so-called Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative that Obama put forward in his budget request last month. That initiative was meant to close gaps in funding the services face as a result of congressionally mandated spending caps (PL 112-25, PL 113-67).
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I have reviewed the unfunded priorities lists and we do not recommend funding any of these additional items unless and until funding exceeds the total amount requested in the president’s budget submission for 2015 and the Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative,” Hagel told Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, in an April 1 letter.
Political Will Lacking
Congress has mandated spending limits on defense and domestic discretionary through fiscal 2021. While lawmakers acted in December to alleviate some of the strain of spending caps in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, they appears to lack the political will to end the arbitrary caps altogether.
The Army, the largest of the military services, provided a $10.6 billion wish list that included funding for training and personnel costs, facility modernization and weapons modernization.
The Air Force wish list included about $8 billion, largely in modernization accounts.
“The attached list incorporates and builds upon the president’s Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative,” wrote Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff. “Our list includes funding to accelerate recapitalization programs such as F-35A [fighter], MQ-9 [Reaper drone] and C-130J [transport], as well as modifications and upgrades to current aircraft. It would also help to reduce the large backlog of facility projects across Air Force installations.”
The Navy wish list included about $10 billion in items spanning the service. It did not include, however, about $7 billion that would be required over five years to refuel and overhaul the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.
The Marine Corps’ provided a separate wish list that included about $2.5 billion in items spanning readiness, equipment modernization, and support.
The National Guard provided a list of about $1.5 billion in unfunded wishes. Defense appropriators often provide to the guard about $1 billion in unrequested funds annually for which it is expected to use for unfunded needs.
Unfunded priority lists were once the norm on Capitol Hill until former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ended the practice because it often was used by the services to subvert the priorities of the Defense secretary and the Office of Management and Budget.
But the fiscal 2013 defense policy bill (PL 112-239) directed the Pentagon to release the lists. Congress also mandated that the military commands also provide wish lists.
Special Operations Command offered a separate list totaling about $400 million, large chunks of which went to increases in flight hours and command, control and communications investments.
Pacific Command included $165 million in unfunded priorities, while Northern Command said it had no unfunded wishes.
Southern Command sought $422 million, and Strategic Command $181 million.
“Budget discipline in the services had gone the way of the gooney bird — it is extinct,” said Gordon Adams, a budget expert with Stimson Center in Washington, a non-partisan think tank. “Even with the secretary’s disclaimer, these should never have been sent forward. Bottom line: they are not going to be funded, but this is politics, not a budget process.”