Thursday, January 27, 2011

Scott Rigell, the defense budget, and a Constitutional cop-out

Near the end of the New York Times' story about the desire of some Tea Party Republicans to cut the defense budget, I came across this striking passage:

Representative Scott Rigell, a Republican newcomer from Virginia who at first sparred with the Tea Party but then signed a pledge supporting many of its positions, said that he, too, was committed to a strong military and the spending it required. In an interview after the hearing, he said that “as a very first priority, it is our constitutional duty to stand an army.”

You hear a lot of this sort of thing from hawks who want to cut Medicare but continue pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into a bloated defense budget, so it might be a good idea to understand how Rigell wrongly invokes the Constitution to avoid a hard discussion about the proper size of the defense budget.

First of all, the Constitution empowers Congress to raise an army and a navy, it's true, but it doesn't actually create a duty (that is, if I'm reading Rigell properly, a requirement) to do so. In fact, it limits army appropriations to just two years at a time. Why? So that the Congress can frequently discuss whether the size and footing of that army is appropriate to the needs of the nation.In Federalist 24, after all, Alexander Hamilton writes "that clause which forbids the appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period than two years a precaution ... will appear to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity."

"Evident necessity."  Read, oh, Federalist 23 through 29, and the idea of "evident necessity" becomes clear: The Founders wanted the European powers to keep their mitts off the United States and its territories. (They also wanted a strong navy to protect American mercantile shipping.) Since Tea Partiers and Republicans continually raise the topic of the Founders' vision for America, it's worth emphasizing very strongly: The United States current defense posture -- one in which we have so many bases around the world that we've literally lost count -- is light years away from what the Founders articulated. They were fighting fears that the U.S. military would become so large that it could oppress the American people; they didn't even consider the idea of bestriding the entire globe.

Just for emphasis, though, let's rejoin Hamilton in Federalist 26

The legislature of the United States will be obliged, by this provision, once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the face of their constituents. ... The provision for the support of a military force will always be a favorable topic for declamation. As often as the question comes forward, the public attention will be roused and attracted to the subject, by the party in opposition; and if the majority should be really disposed to exceed the proper limits, the community will be warned of the danger, and will have an opportunity of taking measures to guard against it.

Finally, in Federalist 28, Hamilton suggests that Americans don't need to worry about the military getting too big for its britches. "We should recollect that the extent of the military force must, at all events, be regulated by the resources of the country. " 

The debate over defense spending doesn't end with a listing of Congress' enumerated powers, in other words. The Founders wanted us to debate that spending, vigorously. They expected that the size of military would be kept in line with the actual need to defend the (ugh) homeland, and reined in if the military was getting too large. And they expected that the size and power of the military would be constrained by our national ability to spend money on that military. There are indications on all fronts that the American government in the 21st century is running afoul of all those ideas. Congrats to Tea Partiers who are sincere enough in their vision to go down this road. And watch out for Republicans who mutter the words "Constitutional duty" in order to short-circuit a very needed debate.