Report: US defense spending averaged 50 percent over country’s first 70 years

Christopher Bedford Senior Editor, The Daily Caller
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The Heritage Foundation’s Marion Smith released a study Friday that aims to concretely illustrate — for the first time — the disconnect between policymakers who would cut defense spending and America’s Founding Fathers.

“The historical record,” Marion writes, “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. 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.”

As the deficit reduction super committee’s November 22 deadline comes ever closer, and doubts that the secretive committee will have reached a deal become greater, across-the-board, mandatory cuts loom.

One major concern about the mandatory cuts, according to the Smith (as well as Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman — the “three amigos” of defense) is the danger they pose to military spending, which would be the subject of 48 percent of the mandatory cuts.

“We’re really concerned about the fact that first, the current impasse of the budget is going to lead to a situation where there’s indiscriminate cuts to defense,” Marion told The Daily Caller, “and second, that defense is going to be treated as an equal priority to an expanding welfare system.”

“Independence” he continued, “is the first priority — independence came before the Constitution. And the Constitution, by giving Congress the power to raise and maintain armies, and the president the power to command them, serves to maintain independence. Everything else comes after that.”

“Of the three things specifically mentioned in the Constitution — ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare — two of those are security related,” Smith stated. “Welfare programs without an obvious constitutional grounding should not be treated as equal to something that is explicitly stated in the Constitution”

Smith’s paper did not simply rely on the numbers, but quoted George Washington’s 1790 address to Congress: “Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defense 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.”

Washington’s farewell address is often quoted by opponents of military spending, who cite his argument against “overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

Nevertheless, as Smith’s research pointed out, Washington made defense the top spending priority during his administration and, Marion told TheDC, “Washington constantly had to battle Congress along the way, personally lobbying members for more ships, more forts.”

Some have dismissed the colonial-to-modern defense spending comparison put forth by Smith, pointing out that in 2011 the government spends so much more on the welfare state and other programs, so that it is no wonder there is a gross disparity.

“To say, of course, that the percentage of the budget used for defense spending is going to be higher when the country is more Constitutional,” Marion countered to TheDC, “Well, I thought that’s what we’re trying to get back to.”

The argument for defense spending at this time “is a difficult sell though,” Marion conceded, “because taxes are on everybody’s mind. But that 48 percent of all the cuts are in defense evokes a principle that really goes against the importance the common defense has been given since the founding.”

“Independence maintained through a strong national defense,” Smith said, “is absolutely the first priority, because without that there is nothing else.”

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