ARLINGTON, Va. – Three years ago, Congress created a commission to help it answer a pair of questions: Is the Selective Service System, which requires 18-year-old men to register for a potential military draft, working?
If so, should it be expanded to include women?
The panel, more than halfway through its work, is asking even bigger questions.
Should draft registration be mandatory, voluntary or eliminated?
Should it target people with specific technical, medical or language skills, in addition to combat capability?
And should compulsory service be limited to the military, or should it include other forms of community service?
The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service will deliver an interim report Wednesday that hints at the breadth of its charge but gives few clues as to how it’s going to resolve the most controversial issues.
“Personally, I don’t think we will remain with the status quo,” commission Chairman Joe Heck said. “But where we end up on the spectrum is yet to be determined.”
Heck, a retired brigadier general and Republican former congressman from Nevada, called the question of whether women should be required to register for the Selective Service on turning 18 “visceral.”
“When we pose this question to people, it’s not like they say, ‘Oh, let me stop and think for a minute.’ They have an answer,” he said. “Either it’s yes, women should have to register just on the basis of equality, or no, women should not have to register because they have a different role in American society.”
In 2017, the Pentagon argued in favor of keeping the Selective Service system – and expanding it to include women.
“It would appear imprudent to exclude approximately 50 percent of the population – the female half – from availability for the draft in the case of a national emergency,” the Pentagon said in the report, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The military said it’s committed to an all-volunteer force and doesn’t have plans to implement a draft. But expanding the draft to include women would help by doubling the number of recruiting leads, officials argued, and foster a sense of gender inclusion in the national defense.
The commission’s review is the most expansive examination of the draft system in U.S. history. Its conclusions are only advisory; whether to implement them would be up to the president and Congress.
Congress has been divided. Lawmakers created the commission in 2016 after the House refused to go along with a Senate proposal, supported by both conservative defense hawks and liberal feminists, to expand the draft to women.
President Barack Obama, in his last weeks in office, came out in favor of a gender-neutral draft in response to a question from USA TODAY.
Obama: Expanding the draft to women is a ‘logical next step’ for the military
Congress, unable to resolve the issue, did what it often does: created a commission to study the question.
With a multiyear budget of $15 million, the 15-member panel is immune to the partial government shutdown.
The commission is taking on a debate that’s been brewing for generations.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, citing a shortage of nurses, proposed drafting women in his 1945 State of the Union Address.
The draft was suspended at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973. When President Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration in 1980, he proposed adding women. Congress disagreed.
In 1981, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 that male-only draft registration was constitutional because women weren’t eligible for most combat roles.
Last year, a federal judge in Houston ruled that the high court precedent might no longer apply because “now, women can serve in combat roles.”
That decision kept alive a lawsuit brought by the National Coalition for Men, which represents two draft-eligible men challenging the sex-based draft.
“We take no position on whether there should or should not be Selective Service,” said the men’s lawyer, Marc Angelucci. “We all would have disagreements about that.
“What we are concerned about is the sex discrimination against men. And we oppose that whether or not there’s a draft.”
Angelucci said he doesn’t trust Congress or the commission to resolve the issue.
Neither does Edward Hasbrouck, an antiwar activist who was jailed for four months in the 1980s for refusing to register for the draft.
The prosecutor in that case: Robert Mueller, who became FBI director and is the special counsel investigating Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“The commission was created as a stalling tactic,” Hasbrouck said. “It may come back with recommendations that are completely ignored.”
Hasbrouck is one of more than 25,000 people who signed a petition urging the commission to end the draft.
“I think any objective serious examination of the last 40 years of draft registration would conclude that draft registration has failed,” he said. “It cannot be enforced. There’s no reason to think it can be salvaged by expanding it to women.”
In the 16 months since the commission was organized, it has traveled the country to solicit public input and received more than 3,000 comments. It’s accepting additional comments through the end of the year.
One theme of many of those comments is a desire for some form of all-inclusive service in which military service would be just one option. Some of those alternatives already exist: the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year and Teach for America.
That idea, too, is fraught with constitutional concerns.
The commission met with legal scholars in October. Heck said they split on whether the government can require compulsory public service.
The 13th Amendment – the one that ended slavery – prohibited “involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Heck would not rule out some form of all-inclusive service, such as devoting the last semester of high school to public service. The panel is looking at ways to promote a culture of service in which, even if it wasn’t compulsory, Americans would be expected to devote at least part of their young adulthood in service.
“Our goal is to create what we call a universal expectation of service,” Heck said. “So that over the course of one or two generations … we inculcate this ethos of service so that the person who doesn’t serve is the odd person out.”