“I believe that the primary Constitutional function of the federal government is national defense, bar none,” reads the very first sentence of Sen.-elect Rand Paul’s (R-KY) issue page on national defense. Sen.-elect Paul is right. It is right there in the Preamble to the United States Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Unfortunately our federal government has been falling short on this primary duty. Now many on the left want to go even further, gutting defense to pay for their own social priorities. But defense spending is not the cause of America’s budget deficits. Mandatory spending on entitlements and interest on the debt currently accounts for over 50% of the federal budget, while defense spending accounts for less than one-fifth.

Contrary to what you may hear, defense spending is actually at near historic lows. During World War II we spent 38% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense; during the Korean War it was 14%; Vietnam 10%, and the Cold War 7%. Yet since 2001, defense spending has averaged roughly 4% of GDP. The toll on our armed forces is easy to see. Air Force tactical aircraft are, on average, over 20 years old; bombers nearly 30; and tankers about 45 years old. And the Obama administration only wants to shrink defense budgets further. White House budget plans indicate defense budgets will fall to just 3% of GDP in 2019. To better Protect America and its interests abroad, and support those in uniform, Congress must:

  • Adequately Fund Defense. Congress must provide for defense an average of $720 billion per year (to be adjusted for inflation) for each of the next five fiscal years, excluding funds for Afghanistan and Iraq. The annual defense appropriation bills should reflect these spending guidelines and be given priority for floor time and signed into law before the start of the fiscal year. This is not an arbitrary number, but one based on a sound strategic assessment of what armed forces are needed in the future.
  • Adopt a Sensible and Efficient Defense Budget. Eliminating waste and redundancies are worthy goals and should be pursued in earnest. Any funds achieved from defense efficiencies must be reinvested into the defense budget, specifically to offset the cost of modernizing and developing next-generation equipment. Real reform means fixing outdated, inefficient compensation packages (while maintaining effective recruitment and retention, and honoring obligations) and business practices—not cutting troops and critical capabilities like missile defenses and air, land, sea and space superiority. By maintaining sensible and stable defense budgets and adopting better personnel management policies, Congress can find the urgently needed funds for modernization and provide a steady stream of funding for new, vitally needed equipment with higher and more efficient production rates, economies of scale, and lower production costs.

At a debate this fall, Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R-UT) promised his constituents: “One of the few jobs the federal government has, one of the few powers that it enjoys under the Constitution, is to provide for our national defense. … This is our very survival as a people that we are talking about. Our ability to continue living in this land and we can’t allow that to be threatened by anything. It is the principal reason why those thirteen original states came together and formed a national sovereign so that we could protect ourselves and protect each other. We’ve got to stay focused on that. If we lose sight of that our very survival could be threatened. That is why I support a strong national defense and will continue to do so.”

Conservatives must pay close attention to what this Congress does and be prepared to hold leaders accountable. That is why The Heritage Foundation has created the Solutions for America: Get to Work checklist. Protect America is one of the five essential tasks Congress must complete to fulfill its electoral mandate. You can listen to Heritage experts James Carafano, Brian Riedl, Curtis Dubay, David Azerrad and Nina Owcharenko discuss Heritage’s new Checklist for the incoming Congress here. You can download and print all of the “Get to Work” fact sheets and checklist here.

Quick Hits:

  • Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is collecting signatures on a letter calling for a vote to ban earmarks.
  • Presumptive House Speaker John Boehner has granted the freshman House class a leadership post of the 112th Congress.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) still has no comment on Tea Party Rep.-elect Allen West’s (R-FL) bid to join the caucus.
  • Where does the Tea Party go from here? Join Billie Tucker of the First Coast Tea Party, Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, and Byron York of The Washington Examiner for a live event today at 11 AM ET.
  • Tomorrow at 10 AM ET, The Heritage Foundation will host a panel discussion on nuclear modernization and the Obama administration’s efforts to force ratification of New START in the lame duck session of Congress. RSVP here.