March 16, 2023

ICYMI: At Hearing, Senator Warren Calls Out AFRICOM and CENTCOM’s Use of Wasteful, “Wish List” Requests on Top of its DoD Budget Proposal

“If we’re going to have a budget, we ought to have a budget, and there’s no reason that DoD shouldn’t be able to work within the budgeting process like every other part of government.”

Video of Hearing (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. – During today’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned the Commanders of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and United States Central Command (CENTCOM) on their use of unfunded priorities lists or “wish lists” in addition to their baseline budget requests. 

When speaking with Generals Langley and Kurilla, Senator Warren highlighted that “these unfunded priority lists are just another way to game the system” and boost Pentagon spending. Despite the Department of Defense’s (DoD) $842 billion budget request, both Commanders Langley and Kurilla confirmed to Senator Warren that they would also be submitting unfunded priorities lists to Congress. Senator Warren pointed out that DoD already has transfer and reprogramming authority to shift priorities within their existing budget.

Senator Warren remains concerned that DoD is using wish lists to distort the budget process and increase its already massive budget, and on March 9, called on DoD to rein in this wasteful spending and make sure its priorities are reflected in the formal budget process. In January, Senator Warren, along with Senators Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Angus King (I-Maine) sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense urging the Department of Defense (DoD) not to ask for additional funding on top of their annual budget request. This year's DoD budget request totalled $842 billion and is one of the largest in U.S. history.

Transcript: Hearing to receive testimony on the posture of United States Central Command and United States Africa 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 16, 2023

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The Biden Administration announced last week that it is requesting $842 billion for the Pentagon’s budget. It’s one of the largest budget requests ever. Despite this already massive number, every year DoD pushes to get even more money by using unfunded priority lists, or what I call “wish lists,” that don’t go through the other budgeting screens.

The services and combatant commands ask Congress for billions more in funding for programs in these lists. Other federal agencies have to balance their “must haves” against their “nice to haves,” but DoD doesn’t. Instead, it games the system by submitting a second list of items that they want so that their budget can grow even bigger. I know that there are colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about this and want to see this practice stop.

Last year, both your predecessors at AFRICOM and CENTCOM submitted these wish lists. So what I am asking today is about whether you plan to do the same.  

General Langley, AFRICOM requested an additional $353.6 million in unfunded priorities last year. In its submission, AFRICOM argued that if some of these programs weren’t funded, it would result in “unacceptable risk.” So my question is: this year, will AFRICOM be putting all of its priority projects – if it’s that important, if it’s putting us at unacceptable risk – will you put that into your base budget request?

General Michael E. Langley, U.S. Marine Corps: Senator, just to be transparent, I will be submitting an unfunded priorities list and here’s why. Because of emergent threats. When President Biden directed us back in last May to return to our persistent presence in Somalia, I took command a few months after that. And being a former programmer, I asked what is the fully burdened cost? I need to communicate to Congress what the fully burdened cost. I need to communicate to the Department first and I did that. I did that after budget submittal from the services to the Department. So that emergent cost was informed by the risk that we have taken.

Senator Warren: So you’re telling me that this request – the ink is not dry on the budget request from the president and you’re already saying that you know that it’s not enough. And I want to remind you about emerging threats. DoD already has transfer and reprogramming authorities to deal with emerging threats. You have the ability to come back to Congress if you can justify an emerging threat. We have a panel looking at whether or not there are more changes that are needed, but these unfunded priority lists are just another way to game the system. If it is a priority to cover something like this, then I think you should be covering it. So are you telling me that the only things that will be on your unfunded  priority list are things you couldn’t have known about when you submitted your budget?

General Langley: Senator, even my predecessor also put the other piece of that cost on there, on ISR. We never had enough. 

Senator Warren: I’m not hearing a yes or no. Are you telling me that your unfunded budget priority list will have nothing on it, except things that you could not have known about when you submitted your budget?

General Langley: There is a persistent threat that we have to account for, so on that list – 

Senator Warren: That’s what your budget is for, accounting for the persistent threat. Let me ask General Kurilla the same. Last year, CENTCOM submitted a request for $35 million in its unfunded priority list. Are you planning to submit a wish list again this year? 

General Michael E. Kurilla, U.S. Army: Senator, I am, but on last year’s – I’m the one who signed last year’s – that was for the massive ordnance penetrator for heavy, deeply buried targets. I do not have procurement dollars in my baseline budget. That is why I requested it.

Senator Warren: So what you’re really telling me is this unfunded priority list is just a way to say, I need a bigger base budget?  

General Kurilla: I don’t have that color of money, Senator, to request that. But what I do as a commander is I mitigate risk and I go through my priorities and the missions I have and then when I have any risk leftover, by the law, I will submit per the UPL.

Senator Warren: Look, I appreciate this. You all know I have raised this issue before. If we’re going to have a budget, we ought to have a budget, and there’s no reason that DoD shouldn’t be able to work within the budgeting process like every other part of government.

I’m out of time on this, but I will be submitting more questions for the record, Mr. Chairman, on what these commands are doing to prevent civilian harm. DoD is on the right path, but I remain concerned about whether or not we’re getting accurate and honest reporting.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.