The Department of Defense last year requested $773 billion in fiscal year 2023 funding for its operations. This $773 billion represented a $30.7 billion increase from the previous year’s enacted amount — and accounts for half of all discretionary spending in the federal budget. But even this hefty hike was not the Pentagon’s only chance at asking for more tax dollars, thanks to a scheme mainly known to Washington insiders.
Most lawmakers across the political spectrum agree we must provide sufficient resources for the Pentagon to defend our national interests and the American people, especially during this time of global uncertainty.
However, the military service chiefs and combatant commanders also requested an extra $24 billion on top of this massive sum to pay for various items in last year’s “Unfunded Priorities Lists.” Our organizations, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union, banded to track and report on this fiscally unsound practice. Like many things related to Pentagon spending, these lists have their own acronym, “UPL.”
Seeking congressional approval for unfunded priorities is an old practice that started informally when military service chiefs appeared at congressional hearings and were asked what weapons systems did not make it into the final budget request. From that modest beginning, these wish lists grew to include research projects, military construction, you name it.
To make things worse from the taxpayer’s point of view, this wasteful practice is even enshrined in law now.
In its fiscal year 2024 budget request to Congress, the Pentagon asked for $842 billion. This, combined with the Unfunded Priorities Lists we have found so far — 13 lists totaling more than $17 billion — puts the Pentagon’s total budget request at close to $860 billion. From our collaboration on this budget-tracking effort for the last two years, we know there are more UPLs out there we haven’t dug up …yet. We’re not the only ones asking how long the federal budget can accommodate bloated Pentagon increases like these.
Like so many other federal spending programs, items on Unfunded Priorities Lists can create “mission creep” and take on a life of their own, regardless of their merit. Some of the extras that appear as “unfunded priorities” just missed the cut for the Pentagon’s formal request to Congress, and that’s why they make it onto the Unfunded Priorities List in the first place. But others seem to wind up there with a wink and a nod to one of the many congressional caucuses that advocate for spending programs benefitting particular states or districts.
Recently, in a victory for common sense and fiscal sanity, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced his support for efforts to rein in this wasteful practice in Senate testimony to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who, with senators Mike Lee, R-Utah, Mike Braun, R-Indiana, Angus King, I-Maine, has sponsored legislation to nix the statutory requirement that military services, combatant commands and other Pentagon subsets produce an annual UPL. This ends the legal requirement; services could still submit the list if they desire.
We applaud Austin’s straightforward agreement to fix this wasteful statutory requirement for creating UPLs and are glad he has committed to working with Warren and her colleagues to stanch this budgetary quicksand. As our organizations have long asked, if you can’t squeeze a program into a topline north of $800 billion, how big a “priority” can it really be?
Remember, it is difficult to kill a federal program in Washington — no matter how unnecessary or wasteful — once it has taken root in the fertile fields of special interest lobbying. And UPLs are one way those interests get an unwarranted second bite at the budget apple taxpayers have worked so hard to cultivate.
Americans have defended democracy for more than two centuries. To keep democracy strong, however, it is essential to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent thoughtfully and transparently on worthwhile rather than wasteful programs that couldn’t fit into a nearly $850 billion budget request.
The late senator Everett Dirksen, R-Illinois, was reputed to have said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” He also warned against poor legislative budgeting practices that amounted to “fiscal suicide on the installment plan.” If he made either of those statements today, he could have easily been referring to the Pentagon’s Unfunded Priorities Lists.