Aerial photo of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virgina on Sept. 26, 2003.

Zombie Defense Spending Rises Again

Here's how military spending caps will be busted.

Aerial photo of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virgina on Sept. 26, 2003.

A sneaky plan will let Pentagon spending rise.

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There is a long history of various parties interested in budget-busting military spending figuring out ingenious ways to pile spending on top of spending. First, there were Unfunded Requirements (UFRs in Pentagon parlance and pronounced “Yoo-fers”). These were items the military services wanted that didn’t quite make it into the DoD budget. They had been knocked out of contention by either the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the Office of Management and Budget. But the military service still wanted the item, to heck with what the budget director thought of it, and it would find its way to the UFR list. Eagerly awaited both on the Hill and in the lobbyist community, being on a UFR was a fast track to becoming an earmark.

Then someone high up in the Pentagon decided it didn’t sound good to have a “requirement” that was “unfunded.” The reasoning went that if it actually was a requirement, it would have been funded. So, those masters of euphemism changed the name to “Unfunded Priorities Lists” or UPLs. If it is just a priority and it wasn’t funded that didn’t sound so bad, apparently.

Whatever you call them, these lists were “unofficially” distributed on the Hill by the legislative affairs divisions of the services and Special Operations Command for years. If your Congressional district or state produced a program that made it to the list, it was a foot race to the floor of your chamber to make a speech about the necessity of adding funding to the Pentagon budget for just that item. In fairness, the Service Chiefs were asked, during their Hill testimony, to provide these lists and another session of Kabuki theater would begin: “I was asked, under oath, if there were any programs I needed that weren’t in the budget request! What could I do, Mr. Secretary, but provide that information?”

[See a collection of political cartoons on military spending.]

As so often happens, what may have started as an honest attempt to add Pentagon funding in a responsible way morphed into a barely usable wish list of also-ran programs. In the beginning, the lists were heavy with procurement items that would go directly to the warfighters. Toward the end, which came in fiscal year 2012, the lists included research and development programs and even military construction projects. Still, members of Congress and defense lobbyists flogged the programs on those lists as essential to national security. And hundreds of them were funded through the earmarking process.

Then former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the services, “No more.” And the UFRs were gone.

But, take heart! In recent guidance to the Pentagon, the Office of Management and Budget apparently included a so-called “investment fund.” Details are sketchy but programs made part of this new “fund” are preapproved by the White House to receive additional funds should Congress make those funds available. But just like being preapproved for a new credit card, you may not be ready for the downside.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Evidently the plan is to allow programs in the investment fund to bust the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act for fiscal years 2016-2019 should they happen to be funded by the Congress. Yes, that’s right. This is a thinly disguised plan to tempt Congress to circumvent the caps set in place to rein in Pentagon spending which is set to rise to a staggering $536 billion in 2019. Evidently, $536 billion just isn’t enough and this gives the services strong incentive to dangle programs of interest in front of the eyes of the most powerful members of Congress as part of this “investment fund.”

If the past is prologue, the items on these lists will quickly be taken up by lobbyists for the government contractors affected. After several years without a good “hook” for asking for an increase to an existing program or the start of a new one, programs appearing in these “investment funds” will be touted as “good government increases,” definitely not those bad earmarks of yesteryear.

If you listen closely, you can hear the defense lobbyists laughing.