Requirement for Women to Register for the Draft Back on the Table in Annual Defense Bill

U.S. Marine recruits in formation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
U.S. Marine recruits stand in formation during a training event at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, March 9, 2021 (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ana S. Madrigal)

A fight over whether women should be required to register for a potential draft has been revived in Congress.

Last year, Congress appeared on the precipice of making women register with what's formally called the Selective Service System, but the idea was dropped from the defense policy bill signed into law after closed-door House-Senate negotiations despite having bipartisan support.

Now, the proposal is back in the version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, making its way through the Senate, and conservatives are again vowing a fierce fight against what they refer to as "drafting our daughters."

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The U.S. military has not drafted anyone since the Vietnam War, and defense officials have repeatedly said they have no intention of moving away from the all-volunteer force.

But men ages 18 through 25 still have to register for Selective Service in case of an emergency catastrophic enough to activate the draft. If they fail to register, men face consequences such as losing access to federal financial aid for college.

Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 20-6 to require women to register for the draft as part of its version of this year's NDAA. The version of the NDAA advanced by the House Armed Services Committee last week does not contain a similar provision, despite the committee supporting the idea last year.

The makeup and political dynamics of Congress have not changed since last year, and the same group of conservative lawmakers who opposed the provision then are vowing a fight again this year.

"The reality is that if we are a country that actively chooses to forcibly conscript our daughters, we are past the point of salvation," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, wrote in a letter this month to the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee. In a separate tweet opposing women registering for the draft, Roy claimed, without citing specific evidence, that "even volunteer women in the military cause the standards to be reduced."

In the Senate, 12 Republicans wrote a letter saying including the Selective Service provision in the NDAA "would be a grave mistake and would needlessly inject divisive social policies into important debates over our national security."

In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that a male-only draft was justified because women were excluded from combat jobs.

But all combat jobs were opened to women in 2015. Congress followed that decision by including a requirement for women to register for the draft in initial versions of the 2016 NDAA. It was jettisoned from that year's final version of the law in favor of a commission to study the future of the draft.

The commission finished its work in 2020 and recommended that draft registration be expanded to include women, calling it a "necessary and fair step."

The Supreme Court last year declined to revisit the issue, citing the expectation that Congress would soon act.

With the commission's recommendation providing support, lawmakers tried in last year's NDAA to require women to register. But despite being in both the House and Senate versions of the bill and having bipartisan support, the requirement was again dropped from the version of the NDAA that got signed into law amid adamant opposition from a small but vocal group of conservatives.

After last year's defeat, supporters of female draft registration vowed to keep working to update the Selective Service requirements.

"To say only men are needed in that moment of a national emergency is outrageous and obscene," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at a news conference after last year's NDAA was finalized.

In a statement this month, Gillibrand highlighted the Selective Service provision in this year's NDAA as one of the "important programs and measures [that] are now on their way to becoming law."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Congress Drops Effort to Add Women to the Draft

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