Congress Moves Toward Automatic Registration for a Military Draft

The House vote was 217-199 with only 3 Republicans voting against and 6 Democrats voting for the amendment.

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[Excerpt from the summary released by the Senate Armed Services Committee of the version of the NDAA for FY 2025 approved by the SASC and to be voted on by the full Senate.]

A proposal to expand registration for a possible military draft to young women as well as young men is moving forward again this year in Congress, along with a seductively simple-seeming but in practice unfeasible proposal to switch from the current system in which young men are required to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) to a system in which the SSS tries to identify and locate everyone eligible for a future draft and automatically register them based on other existing Federal databases from the Social Security Administration, IRS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, etc.

Friday both the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee and the full U.S. House of Representatives approved different proposals to expand and/or make it harder to avoid the requirement for men ages 16-26 to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft.  The House vote was 217-199.

The proposals for changes to Selective Service registration were approved during consideration of the Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2025, a “must-pass” annual bill that typically runs to more than a thousand pages.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version of the NDAA that would expand Selective Service registration to include young women as well as young men. This version of the NDAA will now go to the floor as the starting point for consideration and approval by the full Senate.

Also on June 14th the full House of Representatives approved a different version of the NDAA that would make Selective Service registration automatic while keeping it for men only.

A House amendment proposed by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), a West Point graduate and Army veteran, which would have replaced the provision to make draft registration automatic with a provision to repeal the Military Selective Service Act, was not “made in order” by the Rules Committee to be considered or voted on by the full House. There was no separate House floor vote on the proposed change to Selective Service registration, only a single vote on the entirety of the NDAA as a package.

The SASC markup was conducted in closed session, and only a summary of highlights of the version adopted by the SASC was released. It’s not clear whether the SASC version also includes the provision in the House version of the NDAA to try to make Selective Service registration ‘automatic’ or only the provision to expand the registration requirement (with which compliance is currently low) to young women as well as young men. A spokesperson for the SASC told The Hill today that the full text of the Senate version of the NDAA won’t be released until sometime in July.

Floor amendments are still possible in the Senate before it approves its version of the NDAA. But as of now, it seems likely that competing bad proposals with respect to expansion and/or attempted enforcement through automation of Selective Service — one from the Republican-majority House to try to make it automatic, and one from the Democratic-majority Senate to expand it to women — will be included in the House and Senate versions of the NDAA and go to the eventual House-Senate conference committee to sort out in closed-door negotiations late this year, after the elections.

It’s possible that either or both of these proposals are intended as “bargaining chips” intended to be withdrawn in exchange for concessions on other issues during the conference negotiations. The conference committee could include either, neither, both, or some other compromise on Selective Service in its final package of compromises, which typically are voted on and approved “en bloc” without further amendments.

Either of these misguided proposals would be the most significant change to the Military Selective Service Act since 1980. There have been no hearings, debate, or recorded vote on either of these proposals, and there appear unlikely to be any. The decision will probably be made in secret by the House-Senate conference committee for the NDAA.

Currently, most but not all male (as assigned at birth) U.S. citizens residents are required to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) within 30 days of their 18th birthday, and report to the SSS, within 10 days, each time they change their address until their 26th birthday. Few young men fully comply with these requirements.

Proposals to expand draft registration to women as well as men are anti-feminist and militarist. They wouldn’t salvage the failed system of registration of men: young women would be more likely to resist being drafted than young men have been.

Proposals to “automate” draft registration are a response to decades of failure of the current registration system, and an attempt to enable war planners to pretend that ongoing contingency planning and preparation, including Selective Service registration, makes a draft a viable possible option. The perceived availability of a draft as a “fallback” enables planning and commitments to endless, unlimited wars, without needing to consider regard for whether young people will volunteer to fight them.

Compiling a list of potential draftees by aggregating existing Federal government databases wouldn’t produce an accurate or complete list of draft-eligible individuals or of their current addresses for provable delivery (i.e. by certified letters that have to be signed for) of induction notices. But without informed Congressional opposition, hearings, or debate, the impracticality of automated draft registration based on an aggregation of other lists probably won’t become apparent until long after the change in the law is enacted.

“Automatic” Selective Service registration legislation would also be a privacy and data aggregation nightmare, giving the tiny, inept Selective Service System unprecedented new statutory authority to issue regulations compelling all other Federal agencies — even during “peacetime” and before an actual draft is authorized — to turn over any or all other Federal records, in bulk, that might identify or locate potential draftees.

Whether based on other existing Federal databases or on state driver’s license records, “automated” registration would generate an inaccurate and incomplete list with many out-of-date addresses that omits some individuals who are required to register and includes others who are not required to register.

The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) studied this option of “passive” registration of young people, but rejected it. An internal memo prepared by the NCMNPS research staff, and released in response to one of my FOIA requests after the NCMNPS disbanded, suggested that “The integration of one or more state/federal databases for a post-mobilization registration system would be an inherently difficult integration challenge”, and that, perhaps more importantly, no current Federal database actually contains the information needed to identify all those required to register, weed out those not required to register, and deliver induction notices.

Attempted “automated” draft registration would be a privacy-invasive fiasco, even if its failure might not be noticed right away.

The main effect of “automated” registration would be to eliminate noncompliance with the current registration system as a way for young people to indicate that they don’t want to be drafted and would resist if they were actually drafted.

Proposals to try to “automate” draft registration or expand it to young women as well as young men won’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Unfortunately, though, they are unlikely to be subjected to any public or Congressional scrutiny or debate if they are considered only as part of a package of hundreds of compromise amendments, adopted “en bloc, to a thousand-page “must-pass” bill.

State legislation to “automatically” register applicants for driver’s licenses with the SSS has similar practical problems, is pending in California with its next hearing scheduled for 1 July 2024 in the Assembly Transportation Committee. But Federal legislation to try to automate Selective Service registration using Federal rather than state databases would make state laws like this largely moot.

It’s possible that all of the proposals related to Selective Service registration will be removed from the final version of the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2025 during the conference negotiations in late 2024. But these bad ideas about expanded or automated draft registration, and reliance on the perceived availability of a fallback draft to enable larger-scale military adventurism, won’t go away unless and until Congress completely repeals its authorization for compulsory registration for a military draft.

Young people should continue to resist draft registration and keep the draft out of the policy arsenal of the warmongers. Allies of young people and of their resistance to the draft should lobby members of Congress who oppose endless, unlimited, undeclared wars to reintroduce and push for hearings on the Selective Service Repeal Act.

Edward Hasbrouck maintains the website and publishes the “Resistance News” newsletter. He was imprisoned in 1983-1984 for organizing resistance to draft registration.