By Jennifer Rizzo
As the House Armed Services Committee was finalizing its version of the 2013 defense budget Wednesday, a traditional input from the military's top brass was noticeably missing this year.
The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps service chiefs decided not to submit to Congress their "wish lists," a rundown of programs and priorities not covered under the current budget that they would like to see funded if extra money was available. Officially known as unfunded priorities lists, this is the first year that all the services have not submitted the documents since the 1990s. An exception is the Special Operations Command, which has submitted one request this year of $143 million for high-definition, full-motion video sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
"These served a very useful purpose in the last decade because it's rare for senior military leaders to get a direct line to Congress without having to go through the Secretary of Defense," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The wish list requests have been on the decline since fiscal year 2010, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates mandated that the services show their lists before submitting them to Congress. That year the services only asked for a combined $3.5 billion, as opposed to 2008 when the lists reached their peak at $38 billion (adjusted for inflation), according to research compiled by Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But why stop the practice completely this year? Some see the decision as a political move.
"This is the steepest single year defense cut that we've had since post 9-11," said Eaglen. "The chiefs want to let the political powers that be hash it out themselves and not step into the middle."
As a smaller budget means job cuts across the country, Eaglen said this already political document has become even more political, potentially giving Congress fuel to critique President Obama's defense strategy.
"They can use it to beat the administration over the head about job loss and starting to draw down the military," she said.
The lists can also serve as a means to claim pet projects for congressional members' home districts. Harrison said that back when the lists were large, such as in 2008, they allowed members of Congress from both parties to pick and choose things that were important to their constituencies, all the while providing the cover that "this is something the military wanted."
Republicans are not pleased with the decision.
"It's still a disappointment to the chairman," said Claude Chafin, spokesman for California GOP Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "It is through these that you see what vital requirements wound up on the cutting room floor, as the administration pursued a budget-driven process rather than a strategy-driven process."
The services, however, claim all their needs are covered under the president's proposed budget, so no wish list is necessary. There was also concern among the services that something on a wish list could replace a program already funded.
"The story they are selling to Congress is the budget we are giving you has been thought through very carefully. We need you to fund the whole budget in its entirety. Nothing more, nothing less," said Harrison. "If they were to submit a separate list of unfunded priorities it would undercut their message."
Their is skepticism in Congress on their message. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said in March that senior military leaders had been misleading when they defended a decrease in Pentagon spending proposals. He argued that the generals were not "giving us their true advice" and accused them of toeing an administration line.
Ryan later said he misspoke when he accused military officials of not being honest about the Pentagon budget.
"They are behind this budget. However it is impossible for any chief to say there are zero unmet needs in the military right now," said Eaglen. "If Congress found money outside the president's budget, they need to know where the chiefs would prioritize it."
The House version of the proposed budget is almost $4 billion higher than the president's request. With no guidance from the service chiefs, Congress is in the driver's seat, allocating the money the way it sees fit.
"I suspect that they would both spend that money slightly differently," said Eaglen. "The chiefs are probably much more concerned about readiness in the immediate future as opposed to restoring some major programs that could be dealt with later."
Eaglen points to the example of extra money being allocated to keep the Air Force's global hawks in the air. In contrast the Air Force wants to retire the high-flying drones.
Defense budget experts expect the wish lists, or lack there of, to be similar in the future.
"This is going to be a trend for a number of years," said Harrison. "The service chiefs are going to get behind the president's budget request regardless of what administration is in power.