The Power to Wage War and the Power of the Purse

The 4th of July is both a political and martial holiday, inviting us to recall the occasional necessity to wage war in pursuit of liberty. As it happens, this is also a time in which the War Powers Resolution is once more a matter of dispute, although the unusual circumstances this time are that the controversy involves a Democratic President. I believe that this Resolution is an essential check on the powers of the presidency, and am astonished that its constitutionality is viewed as less than self-evident.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states plainly that Congress shall have the power to declare war. It also states that Congress has the authority “to provide and maintain a Navy.” With respect to an army, however, the Constitution is less expansive; it may “raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” I believe that the logical reason for the difference in the Constitution’s view of the Army and the Navy is the key to understanding not merely the constitutionality, but the necessity, of the War Powers Resolution today.

My argument is based on this chart, which shows “defense” (or, pre-1949, “war”) spending as a percent of GDP from 1800 to the latest budget forecast:

US Military Spending, as Percent of GDP, since 1800

Note how easy it is to pick out the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and even the Korean War with no more than a cursory glance at the chart. Now try to find Vietnam, or any of our other kinetic military actions since 1960. You can’t. Why does this matter?

What is plain from this chart is that, since the dawn of the Cold War, we have had a standing army and a massive military establishment to support it. This is in clear contrast to the expectations of the Founding Fathers, who insisted that any funds in support of an army be reauthorized at two -year intervals. To those who say that this is a naive interpretation that ignores the cold realities of military preparedness, I point to the unambiguous distinction drawn in the Constitution between the Army and the Navy. Highly aware of the impracticality of commissioning and decommissioning of warships, the Founders allowed for recurring funding of the Navy, from which there was no fear of lengthy and extensive commitments of troops in faraway lands. They had no such confidence that a standing army would not be a source of overseas adventurism, and they were–as usual–correct.

What does my little chart have to do with all this? As always, you should follow the money. When recurring military appropriations were tiny, the President had no means to wage war without seeking special appropriations from Congress. A War Powers Resolution was completely redundant. But when the federal government is spending upwards of one trillion dollars annually on “defense,” it is trivially easy for any president to conduct all sorts of military actions without any special appropriations at all from Congress. For one thing, aside from special combat pay, soldiers are paid the same regardless of where or how they’re deployed. Additionally, the extra costs of actual kinetic military action can be covered easily by deferring spending on items such as new-weapons research and acquisitions. In short, the power of the purse is not an effective way for the Congress to constrain the post-war Presidency in warfare.

As long as we live in a world where U.S. military might and preparedness is essential to national security, we will choose to devote a massive share of GDP to it. But in following that path, we ought to recognize that the balance of power between the legislative and administrative branches of the federal government has shifted dramatically as a result. The War Powers Resolution, or something like it, is not a usurpation of presidential powers; it is a restoration of congressional authority and oversight.

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Filed under Economics, History, Politics

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