Defense Spending as a Percentage of the Federal Budget, a Historical Perspective

Compared to past eras in American history, is defense spending too high? Certainly not. Historically, national defense has always taken up a higher percentage of the federal budget than now. This graph from the Heritage Foundation tells the story:

Defense spending as a percentage of federal budget, historical graphAs the Heritage Foundation notes,

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.”

In short, the federal government was created primarily for the purpose of national defense, so it is only natural that defense spending has always taken a high priority. As the graph shows, current defense spending–at 23% of the national budget–is at a historic low. The reason for this is clear–entitlements and non-defense discretionary spending are chewing through tax-payer money at record rates. The War on Terror did not dig this hole we are in–a profligate President and Congress did.

In this current discussion about budgets, we have forgotten what the federal government is all about. It is not Santa Claus dispensing presents to Americans, regardless of whether they have been bad or nice: It is a bulwark protecting the American people. If we have to cut the budget, the last thing that should be touched is national defense–and by this we mean the Department of Defense, and not pretenders such as the Department of Homeland Security or the TSA. Obamacare, a burgeoning federal bureaucracy, several cabinet level departments, earmarks, pork and corporate welfare all have to go. There also needs to be entitlement reform.

Is the current Congress up to this challenge, or is it going to take the “easy way out” and simply gut the military?

(H/t Bluegrass Pundit)

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12 Responses to Defense Spending as a Percentage of the Federal Budget, a Historical Perspective

  1. Considering the massive growth in the federal budget over the years, this doesn’t strike me as the most accurate way to describe military spending. A small percentage of a very large number is still a large number. At some $700 billion, the current defense budget is larger than at any other time since World War II, even after adjusting for inflation. Next to that, the mandated cuts of $50 billion per year is chump change. Nothing about defense is going to be “gutted” at all.

  2. Jared says:

    I think you make a great point. However, the objection I typically hear from liberals and Paulbots is that our defense budget is 10x the defense budgets the rest of the world’s countries combined (or soemthing similar). How would you resond to that?

    • John Scotus says:

      For countries of comparable population and influence, our defense budget is not really that large, esp. when you consider that we help provide the peace in Asia and Europe, allowing more than one country to skimp on their own defense budgets.

      • That’s not really a defense of the current military budget. By that argument, we’re basically subsidizing these foreign countries using borrowed money. That doesn’t sound like something most conservatives would support.

  3. genomega says:

    The military budget today is the smallest it has ever been in history. When countries like North Korea have a military twice the size of ours, we are in trouble.

    • The current military budget is $700 billion, which is higher in real terms than at any point since WW2. The percentage of the federal budget is small only because the total federal budget is growing out of control. Or are you arguing that spending has been flat these past few decades?

      As for North Korea, again, the US budget is $700 billion. North Korea’s *entire* economy is about $40 billion. They couldn’t come close to matching our military capabilities even if they devoted the entire nation’s resources to doing so. To put that another way, we spend more on our military in a month than North Korea spends in their entire economy in a year.

    • (And yes, I realize that military spending does not necessarily equate to military capabilities. But if North Korea can really raise a military twice as strong as ours on less than 6% of the budget, we’re doing something wrong somewhere.)

      • John Scotus says:

        Here is the problem with all of your arguments: You are missing the basic point of the post. The defense budget is not causing the problem–the reason for the budget problem is entitlements and non-defense discretionary spending. Please repeat that over and over again, as it is the truth.
        While it can be argued that defense spending should be cut, this is not an argument that can be made by bean-counters merely looking at the bottom line without regard to military needs on the ground–needs which are quite substantial because of multiple US commitments. It must be made with military priorities and commitments upper most in mind. However, the way things are currently being discussed is simply on the basis on dollar amounts and armchair quarterbacks arbitrarily saying that the numbers look too high, based on exactly the kind of nonsense you are throwing up. It is simply wrong to even think this way while we have soldiers fighting and dying in the field. When North Korea is fighting wars in several countries at the same time with weapons systems that cost billions of dollars to build and maintain, then we can compare their expenditures with that of the US. Until then, it is irrelevant. Meanwhile, the soldiers we have fighting in the field have the right to be armed and equipped with the best weaponry we can afford–and they deserve to be paid, and paid on time.
        If there is to be a discussion of military cuts, then it must be in the context of overall military goals and national defense strategy. Neither the President nor the Democrats pushing these cuts have been thinking or talking this way. Indeed, Leon Panetta is horrified by the way this is being handled and is on record as being against these cuts, as there is no way to maintain stated goals and commitments with these cuts being put in place (BTW, where did you get the figure for $50 billion? The numbers I have seen are for $350 to $450 billion now, with a total of $1 trillion before all is said and done.) Effectively, Obama intends to keep military commitments, but nevertheless cut the budget. This cannot and will not work. If he wants to revise national security priorities, then we need to have that discussion. However, this is not the kind of discussion they are having. Until this discussion takes place and a decision is made, then the military should get every penny it says it needs in order to complete its mission.

        • With Thanksgiving, I never got around to replying here. I would point out that I didn’t bring up North Korea, genomega did, with the ridiculous claim that their military is twice the size of ours. I have no idea why you think that countering that obvious misinformation is “nonsense.”

          Regarding the overall budget problem, yes, entitlements are by far the worst part of the budget. But they’re also very difficult to change, and not just politically. Even the best solutions will have to be phased in over years, possibly decades. We can’t wait that long.

          Keep in mind that the latest vogue is to talk about cuts over 10-12 year ranges. A $450 billion cut “now” is nothing of the sort. If you thought we were actually cutting $450 billion out of this year’s $700 billion budget, I can understand why you’re upset. But that’s simply not the case. That $450 billion is spread out over 10 years and even then only “cut” from the ever-growing baseline. Hence, with some rounding, about $50 billion per year less than it would have been (not less than it currently is).

          I don’t have the exact numbers anymore, but from the graphs I’ve seen, these cuts mean that next year total expenditures will actually be a little bit less than they were this year, but ongoing planned growth means that we’ll be back up to record levels of spending in 2-3 years. That’s hardly something to be worried about.

          As for what exactly to cut, I agree the Democrats are probably going to do it as stupidly as possible, but that’s why we need Republicans to stand up and propose the smart cuts. There are a thousand and one ways we could make the military more efficient, from getting rid of cost-plus contracts to making contracts more competitive to closing outdated bases that we simply no longer need. Some of that will require a national discussion of our military priorities, some of it won’t. That doesn’t mean we should avoid the smart cuts because Democrats don’t want to have the discussion. That means we have to start the discussion instead.

          Finally, you still haven’t addressed the core issue with the original post. Heritage presents a ratio, then draws vast conclusions about the numerator based on what the whole ratio is doing. That’s only a valid approach if the denominator is relatively stable. As it is, the entire decrease in the ratio is due to the massive increase in the denominator, which is offsetting the continued growth in the numerator. Drawing conclusions about the numerator from the ratio when the two are moving in opposite directions is simply bad math.

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