The future of the Selective Service System hangs in the balance as Congress debates the need for conscription.
Twenty-six years after the draft enlisted its last young American, legislation to abolish the Selective Service System is quietly advancing in Congress. But a showdown seems certain with some lawmakers who suggest a return to military conscription.
A provision to shut down the 59-year-old agency, which continues to register 18-year-old males for a potential military call-up, is tucked in a spending bill to be taken up when the House returns after Labor Day.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the agency termination before the August recess with little debate, which surprised many military-minded lawmakers _ and the agency.
"There was no advance warning," said Lew Brodsky, the service's director of public and congressional affairs. He noted that Selective Service survived previous attempts to abolish it, in 1993 and 1995.
If endorsed by the full House and the Senate, the move would slash the system's current $24.4-million budget by $17.4-million in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, providing only $7-million for "termination costs."
Abolition supporters suggest that, if Congress and the president decide to authorize a return to the draft, the system could be re-established quickly.
Few on Capitol Hill foresee Congress and the president reviving the draft. But there have been recent demands, particularly among Republicans on major military committees, for at least consideration of such a move.
Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the military's recruiting and retention problem "a desperate situation that keeps getting worse." He said increased peacekeeping deployments such as those in Bosnia and Kosovo may force Congress to consider conscription in some form.
Reps. Herbert Bateman, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee on readiness, and Steve Buyer, R-Ind., chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, as well as Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have suggested a fresh look at reviving the draft.
For now, the Pentagon says the 1.4-million all-volunteer force is sufficient, although it clearly has been losing a battle of attrition.
The Air Force may fall 2,500 recruits short of its annual goal and come up 1,400 pilots short of requirements. The Army may wind up with 10,000 recruits fewer than its full authorization, and the Navy projects a shortage of 22,000 sailors. Only the Marine Corps seems capable of meeting recruitment goals.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Tuesday that the military is working hard to deal with recruiting problems, which he blamed on a strong national economy. He said the Pentagon still opposes returning to the draft, because "we believe that the all-volunteer force now in its 26th year has been a great success."
Bacon would not go so far as to support terminating Selective Service, which he said "provides a good backup, should that be necessary someday."
President Richard Nixon let the draft expire in 1973, and registration was stopped in 1975 under President Gerald Ford. His successor, President Jimmy Carter, reinstated universal registration of male citizens ages 18 to 25 in 1980 after Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. Roughly 13.5-million men are eligible for military service should the need arise.
Meanwhile, Congress is close to passing the biggest military pay and benefits package since 1981, including 4.8 percent salary increases, future raises of one-half a percentage point above inflation and generous retirement benefits.
Lawmakers said the package should be given a chance to work.
"Congress has done its part. Now it's up to the military to do a better job of retention," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Retired Air Force Col. Paul Arcari, director of the Retired Air Force Officers Association, said the new compensation package will go a long way toward making military pay and benefits more competitive. He characterized reviving the draft as "politically unpalatable."
"If you do have a draft," Arcari said, "you can't get the kind of people you need to work the sophisticated weapons systems of today."
Skelton said re-establishing some form of the draft, perhaps with a new lottery, where some get called and others don't, could "destroy public confidence" in government and revive old complaints about fairness.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has speculated about a possible new draft but now has views similar to Arcari's. No longer can you "spend six weeks showing a recruit the right end of a gun and send him on his way," McCain said.
Reviving the draft also would raise the issue of whether women should be included. Women make up 14 percent of the military and serve in all but the most combat-intensive units.
The move to "zero out" Selective Service was led by Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that oversees independent agencies, mostly to save money without making cuts in other areas, said Walsh's chief of staff, Arthur Jutton.