March 23, 2023

At Hearing, Warren Calls out NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, DoD’s Use of Bloated “Wish Lists” on Top of Budget Proposals

“We don't let any other part of government behave like this and for good reason. The budget process is about making tough choices and setting clear priorities, and refusal to demonstrate leadership here I think is a real mistake.”

Hearing Exchange

Washington, D.C.  – At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned the Commanders of the United States Northern Command and United States Southern Command about their use of unfunded priorities lists – bloated, wasteful “wish lists” that circumvent the budget process. 

Senator Warren made clear that the Department of Defense (DoD) has the tools to reshuffle its resources when necessary instead of requesting hundreds of millions in wish lists. Senator Warren called out DoD as one of the only parts of the government that circumvents the budget process and called for the passage of her Streamline Pentagon Spending Act, bipartisan and bicameral legislation to repeal statutory requirements to provide unfunded priorities lists, reduce wasteful reporting burdens, and enhance civilian oversight over the budgetary process. 

Transcript: To Receive Testimony on the Posture of United States Northern Command and United States Southern Command in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and the Future Years Defense Program
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services 
Thursday, March 23, 2023

Senator Elizabeth Warren: The Pentagon's budget request is 842 billion. This is one of the largest requests in history. But it is not enough money for many components of DoD. Each year, they push to get even more money using unfunded priorities lists, or what I call wish lists. 

Now, our colleagues on both sides of the aisle are concerned about this, and they want to see this practice stop. One of the excuses that I've received as I've asked about these lists is that they reflect emerging threats that can't be accommodated in the regular budget process. Now, we have transfer and reprogramming authority to account for exactly that situation. But even so, let's assume that's true. That means wish lists would only include items that haven't been requested before, you couldn't know about it when you put your budget together. 

General VanHerck, last year, your unfunded priority list contained a request for $50 million for missile defense. Is that right?

General Glen D. VanHerck, USAF, Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command: For this year, or last year? 

Senator Warren: Last year. 

General VanHerck:  I'd have to go back and review it, I believe that’s correct. 

Senator Warren: Well, I'll tell you, it's there. I understand you may not remember all the details, but it's there. Had you requested funding for that program before?

General VanHerck: Yes, I will, in this year's list as well, everything on my unfunded list–

Senator Warren: So let me just be clear, I'm just trying to track this one argument. And that is, is this some unexpected expense? You knew about it last year. How do I know you knew about it last year? Because you'd also requested funding for it from the year before.

In other words, this is not an unexpected requirement for missile defense that you're trying to get funded through the unfunded priorities list. Is that right?

General VanHerck: Senator, everything on my unfunded prior list priority list I was POM [Program Objective Memorandum] for, I POM for, asked for, it was not funded. 

Senator Warren: I have no doubt. 

General VanHerck: Allow me to finish. 

Senator Warren: I have no doubt–

General VanHerck: Can I finish answering your question? 

Senator Warren: I am, I am the one asking the question here. Was this on your list before? And was it a surprise what you put on your unfunded priority list?

General VanHerck: There are no surprises on my unfunded priority list. 

Senator Warren: Okay, that’s what I need to know. 

General VanHerck: That's what all of those were POM for. They're all missions I'm tasked to do, which I'm not resourced to do, and the law directs me to put in an unfunded list within 10 days of the budget. That is exactly what I did–

Senator Warren: Excuse me, the law does not require that you put in any request. We know last year that two different divisions actually put in requests of zero, they did not go to an unfunded priorities list. 

Now General Richardson, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities have repeatedly appeared on your wish list as well. As Commander of Southern Command, you are on the frontline confronting transnational criminal organizations, trafficking drugs in regions there and at home. And I appreciate that work. 

Last year, you asked for an additional $268 million on your wish list. Now, General Richardson, did DoD approve reprogramming money for any of the missions under your command this year?

General Laura J. Richardson, USA, Commander, United States Southern Command: So this year, the, in terms of the funding that I've received, I have 130 million for security cooperation for the region. And so in terms of the, in terms of the reprogramming, I'm not aware of that.

Senator Warren: Well, according to the Comptroller's website, $750 million was reprogrammed to support drug interdiction. Does that sound about right to you?

General Richardson: I'm not tracking the 750, senator.

Senator Warren: Okay. All right. But look, here's the point I want to make on this. DoD already has the tools to reshuffle its resources when needed. Not only that, they have also done so for a key a SOUTHCOM mission in an amount that was almost three times larger than your wish list. Both of you have already submitted your list for this year, I'll be submitting questions for the record to learn more about why you couldn't include these in your budget priorities. 

I understand you want more money, but you have to work within the budget that is given to you. That's what every other part of the government has to do. I've got a bill with Senator King, Senator Lee, Senator Braun that would end the statutory requirement for these lists, but I want to make clear, DoD could shut them down on their own right now. 

We don't let any other part of government behave like this and for good reason. The budget process is about making tough choices and setting clear priorities, and refusal to demonstrate leadership here I think is a real mistake.