In the midst of the current budget battle, there are a lot of folks—right and left—who assume that defense spending is a luxury that America just can’t afford at the moment. This a view far removed from James Madison’s conviction that “security against foreign danger is…an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”
America’s spending priorities are out of whack. Congress’s shortsighted intransigence on the budget will likely mean cutting back the number of delivery days for the U.S. postal service and indiscriminately slashing the defense budget (two items explicitly mentioned in the Constitution). Meanwhile a host of welfare programs (created in the 20th century) are treated as sacrosanct.
Assessing the Founders’ constitutional understanding of federal spending priorities can most certainly help us judge the order and degree to which we cut and reform federal funding in this urgent environment of financial constraints.
The historical record reveals that, today, we consider defense spending to be a lower priority than did the U.S. Congress in the first 70 years of the Republic (see chart). From 1792 to 1860, defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget averaged 48.1 percent, and—even in the most peaceful times—never fell below 23 percent. The next most important items were the costs of the country’s few federal infrastructure programs (e.g., post offices and post roads), maintaining the federal government’s buildings and staff, and the costs of maintaining diplomats abroad.
Moreover, the original impetus for calling the Constitutional Convention in 1787 centered on growing security threats facing the newly independent American states. The Constitution makes national security a main priority. Congress shall have the power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.… To raise and support Armies.… To provide and maintain a Navy.… To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”
The appropriate uses for the military—directed and commanded by the President—mentioned in the Constitution were to “provide for the common defense,” “insure domestic tranquility,” and “punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations.”
To keep the new Congress centered on the priority of national defense, President George Washington cautioned them in his 1790 address to Congress:
Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite.
In the first year of Washington’s Administration, Congress established the War Department, confirmed Major General Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and raised the first peacetime military regiments. Since Washington’s Administration, the United States has had a standing army as well as a navy.
During the early years of the republic (despite intense congressional debates, severe miscalculations about foreign risks, and a few explicitly anti-war and isolationist Congressmen), military spending for the common defense was the clear priority at the federal level.
Yet today, at a time of massive spending, this constitutional priority is being increasingly neglected. With defense spending already at historic lows, if sequestration occurs, it would indiscriminately force the defense budget to absorb 48 percent of the overall cuts. That means cutting defense by anywhere from $500 billion to over $1 trillion from projected long-term spending, thereby severely undermining the ability of the U.S. military to accomplish its current and anticipated operational tasks.
This is the potentially fatal side of the rise of America’s welfare state and its endless benefits and programs. There is no excuse, however, for persisting in upended spending priorities and neglecting constitutional functions that are the core, exclusive responsibility of the federal government.