Equality or absurdity? Senate Dems propose expanding draft registration to women

Will Senate Democrats strike a blow for equality in their new defense proposal by requiring women to register with the Selective Service? Or could they be strategizing to dismantle the system by forcing a debate over it? It’s not the first time this has been tried, but it might end up being the first time it succeeds:

A Senate panel’s newly approved defense budget includes a provision requiring women to register for the draft.

Changes to the draft, officially known as the Selective Service System, were made official in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military budget bill, which the Senate Armed Services Committee announced it had approved Thursday.

The NDAA “amends the Military Selective Service Act to require the registration of women for Selective Service,” a summary of the bill reads.

In 2016, both the House and Senate defense committees attempted to add it to the NDAA. That got quietly dropped, although it’s not entirely clear what led to the House dropping the language in its final drafts. Instead, Congress executed the common Beltway punt of forming a study commission to examine whether to expand the registration requirement to women.

The commission finally issued a report last year recommending the change:

A congressionally mandated commission is recommending women should be eligible for the draft, a move that comes five years after the Pentagon opened all combat roles to women.

“This is a necessary and fair step, making it possible to draw on the talent of a unified Nation in a time of national emergency,” the commissioners wrote in the 255-page report, obtained by POLITICO.

This throws yet another potential wrench into the works for this year’s NDAA. The Senate proposal adds $25 billion more than the Biden White House proposed, with $740 billion in funding for the Department of Defense, as well as $35 billion to be spent on defense issues at the Department of Energy and other agencies. Biden’s top line was $715 billion, and it’s clear that progressives want Biden to hold the line on defense spending. In fact, they have been demanding a 10% cut in defense spending to redirect funds to their own agenda items, which has no chance of passage but still sets up a big conflict when the NDAA comes up for a vote. This might be intended as a bargaining chip for later trading to get enough votes to pass the bill.

One has to wonder, however, whether this isn’t just a ruse to force a debate on the Selective Service itself. We are coming up on fifty years without a military draft, and the last authorized conscription ended fifty-five years after the Conscription Act of 1917 passed. The necessity of maintaining a register of draft-eligible citizens of either sex seems highly debatable, especially since the law requiring it (reinstated by Jimmy Carter in 1980) hasn’t been enforced since 1986. Given that most men either don’t register or don’t maintain their addresses when they move, it’s already a more-or-less useless vestigial reminder of two world wars and the cold war.

The effect of a lack of enforcement on national security has been precisely zero. We have an effective and powerful all-volunteer military that includes both men and women. By implementing an expansion of mandated registration, members of Congress might be hoping to raise awareness of this outdated and unnecessary mechanism. And if that’s not their ulterior motive, it still may be a very good unintended consequence.

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