Senator changes position on military wish-lists
by MANDY SMITHBERGER
One of the many tools the U.S. Congress uses to add defense-industry goodies to spending bills are “wish list” letters from the military services, more formally known as “unfunded priorities lists.”
These lists — which include tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapon systems, programs and construction projects — allow military leaders to circumvent the secretary of defense and appeal directly to Congress for more money.
This gives Congress cover to freely spend more taxpayer dollars, all in the cause of “supporting the troops.”
Former defense secretary Robert Gates recognized this for the shell game it is and largely discontinued the wish-list practice by requiring the services to brief him before they provided any requests to Congress.
“Funding such weapons outside normal channels leads to an unbalanced military force, jeopardizing the never-ending quest for the military services to fight wars jointly instead of engaging in internal budgetary guerrilla warfare with one another,” Time’s Mark Thompson wrote in 2009.
When Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he also seemed to reject these lists as irresponsible gimmicks. “Actually, I’m not really big on unfunded priority lists,” he told Defense One in 2015. “I think they’re sort of a backdoor way of getting things done.”
But this year, for the sake of boosting Pentagon spending, McCain has suddenly changed his tune, filing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 to fund these wish-lists through the war spending account.
The $18 billion increase includes money for an additional 14 F/A-18 fighters, 11 F-35s, 36 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, 17 LUH-72 copters and an additional Littoral Combat Ship — the last being a program that McCain “blasted” as recently as February 2016.
In late May, the Project On Government Oversight joined groups across the political spectrum in a letter urging the Senate to oppose authorizing funds for the Pentagon and related agencies above the amount agreed to in the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act.
We think McCain had it right the first time — these wish lists are a bad way of funding our national security. Congress must stop rubber-stamping these lists if they are going to be able to restore a modicum of fiscal responsibility to Pentagon spending.
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