Pentagon Endorses Ending Defense “Wish Lists” for Good

Taxpayers concerned about wasteful spending in the Department of Defense (DoD) received a major boost on Tuesday as DoD shared in a letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that they support repealing statutory unfunded priorities list (UPL) requirements currently in law. UPLs are colloquially referred to as “wish lists,” and have played a major role in pushing the defense budget upwards in recent years.

The news was first reported by John Donnelly at Roll Call. Donnelly wrote:

“The lists began in the mid-1990s as requests from Congress, but since the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, they have become statutory requirements.

The Pentagon has tacitly gone along with the practice all these years, though from 2006 to 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates discouraged it and the dollar amounts on the lists dropped significantly.

Now, in a stark departure from the norm, the Defense Department is on record opposing those requirements and denouncing them as antithetical to fiscal discipline.”

For National Taxpayers Union (NTU), this is a welcome development. NTU led an ideologically diverse coalition of taxpayer advocates and government watchdog groups in 2021 asking current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to follow former Secretary Gates’ lead and push back on the wasteful wish list practice. The decision by Secretary Austin and DoD this week to support an end to statutory wish list requirements is the most significant Pentagon pushback on the wish lists since Secretary Gates’ actions in the late 2000s.

There is bipartisan and bicameral support for repealing the statutory wish list requirements, which currently apply to the branches and combatant commands of the military, along with other, smaller components of the DoD budget. Sen. Warren led legislation with Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Angus King (I-ME) late last year to repeal the requirements. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Tom McClintock (R-CA) led similar legislation in the House. NTU and a coalition of non-governmental organizations have supported these legislative efforts.

Wish list requests from branches, commands, and DoD components totaled at least $24 billion for the last budget cycle (fiscal year (FY) 2023). That’s more than the entire budgets for many federal agencies. NTU and Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) were the only organizations publicly tracking and aggregating the wish list requests last year. NTU will soon release an early estimate of FY 2024 wish list requests, in partnership with TCS.

Lawmakers should heed the call of DoD leaders and support an end to the statutory wish list requirements, which distort the budget process, undermine civilian leadership at DoD, and put unnecessary upward pressure on the defense budget.