BY MARCUS WEISGERBER MOLLY O’TOOLE
The military’s billion-dollar wish lists for weapons that did not make it onto the Pentagon’s budget might disappear as lawmakers decide whether they’re worth it. Budget / Congress / Pentagon
Long live the Pentagon wish list? Lawmakers this year might not ask the military services to send them wish lists of weapons, that on-again, off-again practice of informally requesting items not included in the Pentagon’s official budget proposal.
Aides for both the House and Senate Armed Services committees say members of the panels have not decided whether they will request the unfunded priority lists. Traditionally these lists, which are closely watched by defense firms and lobbyists, are chock full of expensive programs that fell just below the cut line.
In the past, the military brass from services compiles the lists, at the request of lawmakers. It’s seen as a way for service chiefs to go around the administration’s budget request and ask Congress to fund or put back items they want.
“Actually I’m not really big on unfunded priority lists,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense One Wednesday. “I think they’re sort of a backdoor way of getting things done.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has not yet decided if he will request lists from the services, said committee spokesman Claude Chafin. “[Thornberry] recognizes the utility of the information, and it’s certainly something we need, he just doesn’t have his heart set yet on the vehicle for that information.”
McCain said he’s ambivalent right now, but would talk to Thornberry this weekend at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
Michael Amato, spokesman for Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House panel, said unfunded lists have not been discussed but the committee would probably not request them from the services.
“From our perspective, the budget is the document that matters and if the services want to send a letter, that’s all and good, but we are focused on the formal budget request and removing sequestration,” Amato said.
While the 2016 budget proposal was released in its entirety on Monday, defense firms closely watch for the wish lists, which are customarily sent to Congress a few weeks later. If a company’s program is included on the list, it gives their lobbying effort more stock, since they could point to the military’s desire for the item.
Often times, Congress will find a way to squeeze these items into the budget, albeit not always at the levels requested.
That was the case this year with the Navy’s EA-18G Growler. The Boeing-made Growler is a F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet that carries special wing pods that jam enemy radio signals. The Navy did not request any Growlers in its 2015 budget proposal, but included 22 in its unfunded priority list. In the end, lawmakers added $1.46 billion for 15 jets in the Pentagon’s budget.
The Pentagon has gone back and forth over wish lists. Sometimes, it is referred to as unfunded requirements, more often, unfunded priorities. The list grew in length and dollar value last decade. At one point, the Air Force’s list topped $20 billion. This came despite military spending already being at an all-time high.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not a fan of the lists, and pared them back substantially. By 2013, they were no longer produced. They reemerged last year after the Pentagon submitted its 2015 budget proposal.
On Monday, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said he “would assume that the chiefs would probably continue past practice, but for me … it’s too early to comment about what people don’t like about it already.”
Ashton Carter, who had his nomination hearing Wednesday to become defense secretary, said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee the he would allow the military’s service chiefs to submit the wish lists. But it’s up to Congress to request them.