On May 19, 2021, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a hearing with members of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. In its final report, the Commission recommended not only maintaining the Selective Service System, but also expanding the burden of the draft to women. And if you followed the headlines about that hearing, you might think it was a done deal, that any controversy was coming from those opposed to gender equity. But that’s because no witnesses representing an alternative point of view were allowed to testify or answer HASC members’ questions during the hearing.
The HASC chair, Rep. Adam Smith, did enter a written statement into the record from Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, lead sponsor of the Repeal Selective Service Act, HR 2509. Still, the hearing’s one-sided testimony, and the limited exchanges that were allowed to be heard, only helped bring into sharper focus why additional hearings held in the HASC Subcommittee on Military Personnel are so important to enrich our national debate on this issue and inform the final decisions on the future of Selective Service. We call on Rep. Jackie Speier, chair of the Subcommittee, to make good on her promise from July 1, 2020 to hold hearings “within the next year.”
The Commission’s final report – and much of the publicity and discussion that has occurred about their recommendations – has obscured the Commission’s original mandate, as well as the initial impetus for the Commission itself: the future of the Selective Service System. The creation of the Commission was a direct result of the DOD opening up all positions, including combat positions, to women, raising questions about the fairness and constitutionality of male-only draft registration. Their mandate also to address national service more generally appears to be the primary issue that consumed the Commission. Issues of draft registration seemed to be almost an afterthought.
Commissioner Steve Barney, in response to a question from Rep. Speier, stated that, “The main thrust of our Commission’s report is to elevate all forms of service … military service. . .as well as the national service as evidenced by the Peace Corps and Americorps, and then public service as the public servants at the federal, state, local and tribal level.” [Emphasis added.]
Exploring ways to expand opportunities for service, and encouraging people to serve in various capacities is a far cry from deciding who, if anyone, should be required to register for the draft, and imposing penalties on those who do not. This lopsided hearing showed that there is a need for another hearing to address these important issues.
The hearing also revealed why it is not unreasonable to think that Congress created the Commission in order to avoid a prolonged and messy debate about women and the draft. When asked how women they encountered feel about being required to register for the draft, Maj. Gen. Joe Heck (Chair of the Commission) said that their data indicated a “small majority” of people, “52 or 53%,” favored expanding the draft to women. We attended every single event the Commission held, and that’s not the whole story.
Testimony at those hearings, and that obtained through FOIA requests, has revealed significant opposition to expanding or even maintaining the draft. Based on the Commission’s report and the testimony at this hearing, we can only conclude that these voices were disregarded, or worse, ignored. In the hearing, Maj. Gen. Heck reiterated a statistic we know to be false: he said that the Commission received about 4000 public comments. However, a FOIA request to the National Archives (who now hold the records of the Commission) indicated that the Commission received more than 37,000 public comments. Among the letters the Commission failed to acknowledge was one from the National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC represents 35 religious communions with more than 35 million members.
The Commission also seems to have disregarded concerns about the effectiveness of Selective Service registration for its stated purpose. Maj. Gen. Heck boasted in the hearing that, over its three years, the Commission sought input from a variety of sources, including former Selective Service director, Bernard Rostker. What Heck failed to mention, though, was that in his testimony to the Commission, Dr. Rostker called for the Selective Service to be abolished, saying it is “less than useless” for its stated purpose.
When Chairman Smith presented similar concerns raised by Rep. DeFazio about the failures of the registration system, Maj. Gen. Heck dodged the question and instead stated that the Selective Service isn’t “just” about being able to draft people into the military. He said “it sends a message of resolve to our adversaries that the nation as a whole is ready to respond to any crisis. It also provides recruiting leads to military services, so when the individual at 17 or 18 registers for the first time that information is provided to the military services.”
That is one reason why so many conscientious objectors object to registering. To send a message to the world that they are ready and willing to fight in a war violates their conscience and their sincerely held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs. But that is not the only problem with this relationship between Selective Service and military recruitment: 1) The Selective Service System was established in law (thanks to CCW’s founders!) to be a civilian agency, not an arm of the military; and 2) is it just and fair to criminalize people who cannot or will not register – to threaten them with a federal felony and deny them civil services and assistance without due process for the purpose of providing leads to military recruiters? No, it is not.
How can we retain draft registration as the law of the land, but not allow due process for those who violate it? If the will is not there to enforce a law under the scrutiny of due process, perhaps that law should not exist. This is a question that deserves an honest, full and fair hearing. Congress shouldn’t defer this discussion any longer. The Commission didn’t do its job; Congress must.
We completely agree with Rep Speier that women and men should be treated equally under the law. The best way to accomplish that is by ending draft registration once and for all.