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Holding the Government Accountable

Armed Services Committee Chairman Flip-Flops on Pentagon Wish Lists

Senator John McCain by Flick'r user Gage Skidmore

Update (June 6, 2016) - On a strong bipartisan vote the Senate rejected Senator McCain's amendment to increase Pentagon spending by $18 billion to pay for Pentagon pork. We thank the Senate for looking out for taxpayers and rejecting the latest gimmick to use the Pentagon's war spending account as a slush fund.

One of the many tools used by Congress to add defense industry goodies to defense spending bills are “wish list” letters from the military services, called “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 our 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 was and largely discontinued the wish list practice by requiring the services to brief him before they provided any requests to Congress. As Mark Thompson of Time then wrote, “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.”

When Senator John McCain (R-AZ) 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 last year. “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 Super Hornets, 11 F-35 fighters, 36 UH-60 Blackhawks, 17 LUH-72 Lakota helicopters, and an additional Littoral Combat Ship (the last being a program McCain “blasted” as recently as February of this year).

This week 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 (BBA).

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.