By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The return of a budget tactic that was banned by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates shows just how politicized Pentagon spending issues have become.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., on Monday released a letter he sent to the four officers who run the armed services and 10 other top US generals and admirals requesting they submit lists of desired items that will not be in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal.
“I believe these lists provide valuable insight into the priorities of our warfighters, particularly with respect to important needs which are not included in the president’s budget request but could be executed should additional resources be available during the annual authorization and appropriation for the Department of Defense,” McKeon wrote.
With defense spending capped for 2015, it is unclear how Congress would substantially inflate the Pentagon budget to include most or all of the reportedly $26 billion in items slated for the unfunded lists. One option, however, is to swell the war-funding portion of the 2015 defense budget, which is not subject to the caps.
Defense News and other media outlets in recent weeks have reported that the Obama administration is reviving the lists, killed by Gates because he found them extravagant, unnecessary and rather silly.
McKeon pits the White House against the Pentagon in the letter, writing that he believes the lists show “the department has now coalesced to the committee position that defense funding is substantially underfunded to meet national security requirements.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will preview that spending blueprint next Monday, and it will be delivered to Capitol Hill in early March. But McKeon, breaking with the tradition of the “unfunded priority lists,” already has requested them.
The top minority members on the House and Senate Armed Services committees typically have asked for the lists shortly after defense budget plans have been delivered to Congress. McKeon notes the former, writing in the letter that he, as committee ranking member, in 2010 requested the lists.
House Armed Services Committee spokesman Claude Chafin said he is “not sure why it matters who sends the letter.”
The resuscitation of the lists is being welcomed in defense circles. But a senior House Democratic aide was critical of McKeon’s aims when asked about the letter.
“Seems to simply be a political exercise,” the senior Democratic aide said. “Also, it’s a little strange to ask what got dropped before you know what made it in. “
Chafin rejected that notion. “Since the White House will issue their vetted list of unfunded requirements together with the budget,” he said, “it is fair to have the unfiltered list in hand at the same time.”
McKeon asked committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., if he wanted to sign on to the letter late last week. Smith said no, according to the Democratic aide, because “the letters were over the top and, as the letter points out, the president already asked the services to do this.”
The back-and-forth is the latest indication of, as defense budgeting became part of the last several years’ partisan battles over the nation’s deficit, how a once-bipartisan panel has become more partisan.