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Congress Toys With BILLIONS For Defense ‘Wish List’

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry is being coy about whether he will ask the military for a list of spending priorities that were left out of Obama’s 2016 budget.

Politico reported on Tuesday that, “Thornberry is leaving open (for now) the question of whether he’ll follow his predecessor in asking top military brass for lists of ‘unfunded requirements’—things they want that didn’t make it into the president’s budget request.”

“I haven’t gotten to that point at all,” Thornberry told Politico. “Obviously part of our questioning of the services and military commanders is what their priorities are,” he added, but “whether there is some sort of formal list that comes or goes, I don’t know that.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had phased out the lists by 2013, Defense News claims, but they returned during last year’s budget debates at the request of then-Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon.

The total cost of the projects included in last year’s wish lists came to about $36 billion, but at the time, experts were generally pessimistic that any of the items would be approved, due to caps on defense spending imposed by sequestration. (RELATED: Defense Spending vs. Entitlement Spending)

In December, though, Congress approved about $3 billion in requests from the wish lists as part of the “Cromnibus” spending bill that averted a government shutdown, and there are indications that supplemental defense spending could be even greater this year.

According to the White House blog, President Obama’s 2016 budget “proposes to end sequestration, fully reversing it for domestic priorities in 2016, matched by equal dollar increases for defense funding.”

The president’s budget “provides $561 billion in base discretionary funding for national defense—$38 billion above sequestration levels—and $58 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations,” but if Congress accedes in ending sequestration, that figure could rise significantly.

Those with “the most to gain” from the return of the unfunded requirements lists, Politico says, are defense contractors, particularly Boeing. (RELATED: Spending Bill Slammed for Defense Contractor Favors)

Last year, for example, the Navy’s wish list included a request for 22 EA-18G Growlers, a type of fighter jet produced by Boeing, “and Congress ended up funding 15 of the electronic attack jets, allowing the company to keep open its St. Louis production line until at least fiscal 2017.”

“Boeing’s backers in Congress,” moreover, could extend the lifespan of the St. Louis facility even further if the Navy requests (and Congress approves) seven more jets this year, to bring the total to the 22 aircraft it originally requested.

Yet Jed Babbin, former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, argues in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner that while they are imperfect, the unfunded requirements lists are vital for mitigating the harmful effects of across-the-board defense spending cuts mandated under sequestration. (RELATED: Poll: Majority Support Overall Spending Cuts but Oppose Reductions in Military Spending)

“Because our defense spending is being cut in that manner, a severe imbalance is growing between what we will need and what we will have,” Babbin claims, pointing out that some of the supplemental spending included in the Cromnibus last year went toward such basic purposes as refueling the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.

Even with those emergency appropriations, though, Babbin says the Cromnibus still failed to address “critical problems such as the budget cuts that left the Navy without enough skilled shipyard workers to maintain the submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers necessary to maintain America’s relevance around the globe.”

“In literal terms,” he concludes. “The unguided budget is deciding our strategies and missions for us.”

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

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