In early February, Marcus Weisgerber and Molly O’Toole reported for Defense One that the new chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were not enthusiastic about unfunded priority lists. According to Weisgerber and O’Toole’s, an aide to Texas Republican Mac Thornberry said that he had not yet decided whether to request the lists from the military services, though he did acknowledge that he appreciates the information they provide. Arizona Senator John McCain was even less enthusiastic about them. “Actually I’m not really big on unfunded priority lists,” he said, “I think they’re sort of a backdoor way of getting things done.”
McCain is right. Unfunded priority lists are “wish lists” the services can submit to Congress highlighting items not included in the administration’s budget request. As Weisberger and O’Toole note, the lists highlight for defense industry lobbyists where to focus their efforts as they “are chock full of expensive programs that fell just below the cut line.”
Despite McCain’s lack of enthusiasm and Thornberry’s ambivalence toward wish lists, Politico’s Pro Defense site reported this week that both the Navy and Army would soon each submit their own to Congress. It stands to reason the Air Force will follow suit.
Robert Gates limited the practice of submitting unfunded priorities during his tenure as secretary of defense, requiring the services to send the lists to his office for review before forwarding them to Congress. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resurrected the practice of direct submission, as a result of a provision in the National Defense Authorization for FY2013 and at the urging of Republican representatives Duncan Hunter and Buck McKeon—the latter was Thornberry’s predecessor as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The results of direct submission to Congress should certainly have pleased those in the defense industry. At the urging of several representatives from Missouri, Congress appropriated $1.46 billion for fifteen E/A-18 Growlers—an electronic warfare aircraft that had not been part of the Pentagon’s original budget request. It is small comfort that the Navy had actually asked for twenty-two jets on its list. The Missouri delegation’s interest in the program stemmed from their desire keep an assembly line running near St. Louis.
An “unfunded priority” is oxymoronic. Strategy is about prioritizing based on available resources. The Department of Defense claims its budget is “strategy driven.” For something to have been “unfunded” is to say by definition that it is not a priority. The wish lists are simply a means by which the military services can avoid actual prioritization, and Congress, can pursue pork barrel politics.