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Congress Begins First Debate in Years on Draft Registration

Poster, c. 1980

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on February 19 reversed the decision of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that had dismissed the complaint in "National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System." The Court of Appeals reinstated the complaint, and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for consideration of the other issues in the case.

by Edward Hasbrouck

Congress will soon have to choose whether to extend draft registration to women, to end all draft registration, or to allow registration to end by court order.

Both Democrats and Republicans are divided on the issue, but a new bipartisan bill would end draft registration entirely, not extend it to women.

Introduced by Republicans Mike Coffman and Dana Rohrabacher and Democrats Peter DeFazio and Jared Polis, H.R. 4523 would do three things: end draft registration and eliminate the authority of the President to order anyone to register for the draft; effectively repeal the existing federal legislation that makes registration for the draft a condition of Federal student aid, employment, and job training; and abolish the Selective Service System, which would make it more difficult to bring back the draft in the future. (The proposed federal legislation would leave in place state laws that deny some state benefits for the draft a condition for receiving some state benefits to those who were previously required to register but did not do so before registration ended.)

Why is Congress considering this issue now? When the Supreme Court upheld males-only draft registration in 1981, it based its decision on "deference" to the decisions of the Department of Defense and the Commander-In-Chief, at that time, not to assign women to any combat position. The facts underlying that Supreme Court decision have now changed with the announcement in December 2015 that women will be eligible for all combat assignments.

Several lawsuits challenging males-only draft registration are already pending, including one in Los Angeles that could be decided this year, and it's likely that males-only draft registration will be found unconstitutional. Such a court ruling would force Congress to choose whether to extend draft registration to women, or to let a court decision ending registration stand.

The courts can't order women to register. Nor can the President, the Pentagon, or the Selective Service System. Unless Congress extends the registration requirement to women, registration of men will have to end if courts find that it is illegally discriminatory.

Other bills to extend draft registration to women have been introduced in Congress by both Democrats (HR 1509) and Republicans (HR 4478), and questions about whether women should be required to register have been asked in both Democratic and Republican Presidential primary debates.

Congress could enact a law extending draft registration to women. But extending registration to women would require getting women to comply with the law, and enforcing the law if they don't Why is Congress considering this issue now? do so voluntarily.

Is there any reason to think that young women would be more willing to sign up to be drafted than young men have been? I doubt it. In 1980, when President Carter proposed to reinstate draft registration, some of the strongest opposition came from women. "I wouldn't mind the privilege of being among the first women to burn their draft cards", feminist writer and activist Karen Lindsey said at an anti-draft rally in Boston. Many women remained active in the resistance even after Congress voted to require only men to register, though the press tended to focus on male resisters.

Women have been among those health care workers most concerned about Selective Service preparations for for a draft of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, which would include women but would be based on professional licensing lists rather than on self-registration of potential draftees.

Women share many of men's reason not to register, and have other reasons of their own. Draft registration was reinstated in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to prepare for U.S. intervention in support of the fighters who were then called the "mujahideen" and who would later christen themselves the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That the U.S. government put me in prison for refusing to agree to fight on the side of the people who became the Taliban doesn't say much for its judgment of which wars to intervene in, or on which side.

Extending draft registration to women will provoke at least as much resistance as did draft registration for men in the 1980s. Today, people of all ages and genders question why the U.S. is supporting the fundamentalist (and supremely sexist) monarchy in Saudi Arabia, or the dictatorship in Yemen, among others. There are both feminist and sexist arguments against subjecting women to the draft and draft registration.

Draft registration of men has been a fiasco, and has proven unenforceable – as it would be for women. In the early 1980s, I was one of just 20 nonregistrants the government picked out for prosecution. The government selected those it considered the "most vocal" nonregistrants, and was able to prove that we knew we were supposed to register only by using our own public statements against us. Most nonregistrants couldn't be prosecuted without first sending FBI agents to notify them of their duty to register, which would be prohibitively expensive and give them no reason to register unless and until the FBI tracks them down. Nobody has been indicted for violating the draft registration law since 1986.

Because most men today register, if at all, only to get student aid or in some states to get a driver's license, and never update their registrations, most addresses on file with Selective Service are obsolete, and most draft notices would end up in the dead letter office.

But the government has never been able to find a face-saving way to end registration and shut down the Selective Service System without admitting that its scare tactics failed, or dealing with the implications of young people's insistence on making their own choices about which wars to fight.

The likelihood and imminence of a court ruling that males-only draft registration is now unconstitutional provides the perfect opportunity for Congress to end draft registration entirely. But the debate has mostly been framed as one between those who want to exclude women from combat and continue to register only men for the draft, and those who want to allow women in combat and register both women and men for the draft. H.R. 4523 provides a bipartisan way out of this quandary, and the best chance in decades for legislation to end draft registration.

If you are a young woman, would you register for the draft, if draft registration is extended to women? Are you talking to other young women about this? What can men, older people, and other organizations do to help you?

How can men and older women avoid sexism and ageism while supporting young women and young men faced with draft registration?

What can all of us do to inform ourselves, reach out to others, and build a movement to end draft registration rather than extend it to women?

Edward Hasbrouck has been active in the draft registration resistance movement since 1980, and maintains a website about the draft, draft registration, and draft resistance at <>.

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