The House Armed Services Committee has a springtime ritual dating back to 1995 in which it requests “unfunded priorities” lists from the military’s top brass. The exercise is HASC’s nudge toward a defense budget higher than the President’s request, and it’s noteworthy that the service chiefs and SOCOM commander ever participated in it. Then-Secretary Gates significantly restrained the process starting with FY2010 when he demanded to see the lists before the Hill. Having to explain to the Secretary why they were second-guessing the budget changed incentives for the brass, and unfunded priorities plummeted from $31 billion in 2009 to $4 billion in 2010.
This year that logic very nearly reached its natural conclusion – no lists at all. General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, offered a solid explanation of why the services declined to participate:
I’m a taxpayer, and I take this pretty seriously… I know there’s a finite amount of money out there. This is not a pot at the end of the rainbow. So if I ask for something else, on top of what I have, then something else is going to have to give — assuming that there’s a finite amount.
That assumption is spot on. Caps set by the Budget Control Act require trade-offs specifically within national defense (at least for the time being). This changed incentives again for SOCOM and the services. For the first time in the history of this exchange, the conversation about financing something not in the budget – like this year’s lone unfunded priority, SOCOM’s $143 million for aerial ISR –has to begin by identifying some other military program already in the budget to pay the bill.
Nevertheless, some members of Congress still hope to bait the services into providing fodder for charges that the military is getting short shrift. So far they have ended up disappointed or even overextended. In other words, their incentives are changing and their behavior may soon follow.
At least as long as BCA caps are in place, it may be savvier for them to forego the unfunded priority solicitation altogether than to have the military’s top officers undercut their position.