March 28, 2023

At Hearing, Senator Warren Secures Support from Defense Secretary to Repeal “Wish List” Requirement

Warren: “We don't let any other part of the federal government behave this way and it is for a good reason. The budget process requires making tough choices. ”

Video of Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. — At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) secured support from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to remove the statutory requirement to submit unfunded priorities lists in addition to annual budget requests. Senator Warren also submitted a letter into the record from Under Secretary Michael McCord in which he confirmed the ineffectiveness of unfunded priorities lists on top of annual budget requests and endorsed her bill with Senators King, Lee and Braun, to end the statutory requirement for these wasteful lists. 

Secretary Austin also confirmed that the budget request addresses the United States’ national security needs. “Our request is directly linked to the capabilities that we need to execute our strategy,” he said.

Transcript: Hearings to examine the President's proposed budget request for fiscal year 2024 for the Department of Defense and the Future Years Defense Program.
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services
Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and thank you all for your service to our nation. This year's Department of Defense requests an $842 billion budget, one of the largest budgets in history. Now, despite the massive size of this budget request, the committee is already receiving letters from various parts of DoD, saying that they need billions of dollars more. 

DoD calls these unfunded priority lists. I call them wish lists and I'm concerned about how they distort our budget process. So Secretary Austin, if I could, let me ask this directly. Are you comfortable with the figure in the President's proposed budget, that it is sufficient to meet our defense and national security objectives?

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III: I am, Senator. As you know, we made this budget request based upon our strategy. Our request is directly linked to the capabilities that we need to execute our strategy and we spent a lot of time on that. I've asked commanders and service chiefs to make sure that they go after warfighting capability and readiness in their base budget, and for the most part, we've done that. But again, we are required by law –

Senator Warren: I understand. So we're gonna go there. We're gonna go there, Mr. Secretary. Now, Secretary Gates understood that leaders at DoD can always find a gap or requirement to justify asking for what he called, however many billions of dollars more you want. He reduced wish lists by about 90% and he was able to do this during the surge in Afghanistan. Secretary Austin, you have a unique perspective here because before you were Secretary of Defense, you were the commander of major combatant command, a job that is now held by the people who are asking for unfunded priorities. 

When Secretary Gates cut these unfunded lists down, you were commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq. Secretary Austin, did our national security suffer when Secretary Gates cut down the service wish lists?

Secretary Austin: I can say that, you know, while we were in Iraq and Afghanistan, we – based upon support of Congress – we had what we needed to be able to prosecute our operations and so we didn't want for much of anything.

Senator Warren: Okay, so let's talk then about the budget process. Each combatant commander thinks about how they could spend more money than you have allocated to them in this process that you describe. I assume these combatant commanders act in absolute good faith, but they have a narrow perspective. Secretary Austin, in putting together the overall budget, you have to weigh our global national security priorities. Do the commanders submitting these wish lists have to do the same?

Secretary Austin: They are primarily focused on their region and what they would like to have for the region in order to be successful. So but again –

Senator Warren: I’ll take that as a no. Yes. All right. You know, as my colleagues on this committee are well aware, I've been using these budget posture hearings to ask combatant commanders – folks who occupied the roles, like the ones you used to when you used to serve – about these lists, and almost all of them have defended their requests. Although the justifications vary. Three of them said they needed the items on this list to address unexpected threats that couldn't be considered in the budget process. But these same commanders often repeat the same requests year after year after year, suggesting that if there were a real need, they would have worked it into the underlying budget. Secretary Austin, does DoD have sufficient tools to address emerging threats without relying on the unfunded priorities list?

Secretary Austin: We do it and again, we account for that as we build the budget.

Senator Warren: Okay. And one last question. Do you support removing the statutory requirement to send Congress these lists every year? And if so, are you confident that we could do so without jeopardizing national security?

Secretary Austin: I would support that, Senator.

Senator Warren: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I would also like to submit a letter for the record from Under Secretary McCord supporting my bill with Senator King, Senator Lee and Senator Braun, to end the statutory requirement for these lists. As he notes in the letter, these lists are, “not an effective way to illuminate our joint priorities.” 

We don't let any other part of the federal government behave this way and it is for a good reason. The budget process requires making tough choices. I appreciate that the Secretary leads in that and I would like to submit this for the record. Thank you.