The Selective Service System is one of the last gender-based distinctions still on the books in federal law. Men ages 18 to 26 are legally required to register for the draft in the United States: fail to sign up and you could still face major penalties — even though the draft hasn’t been used since 1973.
A new petition before the Supreme Court argues that women should also be required to register for the draft. Its defenders say that’s only fair, following a 2015 decision by former Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter that opened all combat positions in the military to women.
But nearly 50 years after the Selective Service System was last used, a new bill in Congress poses a bigger question: why do we even still have the draft system in the United States?
The Selective Service Repeal Act of 2021 aims to scrap the system entirely.
Oregon Congressmen Ron Wyden, Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer are all co-sponsors on the bill. So are some unlikely allies, like Republican Senator Ron Paul, and Republican Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Rodney Davis of Illinois.
Southern Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, in particular, is not a fan. “It’s an obsolete, wasteful bureaucracy,” he says.
DeFazio’s first personal encounter with the draft came in 1967, as the war against Vietnam was escalating. “I enlisted in the Air Force to avoid getting drafted into the army and being sent as a grunt on the ground in Vietnam,” he says. “So I volunteered and enlisted. If I hadn’t, ultimately I would have been subject to the lottery and the draft and I wasn’t willing to go through that random process.”
He says aversion to the draft was a widespread problem for the military in the late ’60s and ’70s. “When they had the draft, they had massive morale and discipline problems,” DeFazio says. “When you get people drafted who really don’t want to be in the military, it doesn’t work well for the organization.”
Today, DeFazio says the draft system has been weaponized to be overly punitive. “If you reach age 26 and you haven’t registered for the draft, you are blackballed for life from any federal assistance,” he says, “federal jobs, federal student loans, and also potentially subject to criminal prosecution. It’s absurd.” He last sponsored a bill to repeal it in 2019.
We already briefly eliminated the draft once. President Gerald R Ford signed a proclamation eliminating the registration requirement in 1975, but President Carter reinstated it in 1980.
Republicans have been resistant to any Democratic efforts to reshape the military in recent years. They slammed President Biden’s proposed federal spending plan, even though it increases defense spending to a record $753 billion dollars. But DeFazio says changes in military technology — and the nature of military conflict in the modern world—suggest future international conflicts likely won’t put the same demands on human forces that we’ve seen in the past.
“We’re looking at the potential for lightly manned or maybe unmanned ships.” He says. “They’re using a lot of drones, they’re looking at aircraft that might not be manned in the future. It’s not as heavy an individual undertaking as it used to be. We’re not going to be fighting massive land wars that require some sort of huge draft of American people.”
President Biden recently set a timeline to withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan, signaling an end to U.S. involvement in America’s longest war. DeFazio says the end of the Selective Service could be a step in turning the tide on America’s reliance on our frequent use of our military force.
“We don’t need to be deployed everywhere and anywhere around the world dealing with all threats,” DeFazio says.
“We should not be the cops of the world. I’ve taken that position for many decades.”
Listen to Rep. DeFazio’s full conversation with OPB Weekend Edition Host John Notarianni using the audio player above.