Rep. Houlahan Fails To Justify Move Toward a Draft

“I have an amendment at the desk.” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan introduces a proposal from the Selective Service System to automate draft registration in the House Armed Services Commiteee, May 22, 2024.

Under fire for proposing an ill-considered amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to “automatically” register all young men in the U.S. for a possible military draft, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) has issued a statement that casts more doubt on her understanding of the current draft law and on the wisdom of her proposed changes to Selective Service registration.

Rep. Houlahan starts by claiming that “This new legislation saves taxpayers significant money.” But there’s absolutely no evidence to support this claim.

Although the proposal to “automate” draft registration originated with staff of the Selective Service System, they made this proposal to Rep. Houlahan and others in Congress outside the normal budget process.  There’s no plan or funding for automation of draft registration in the Selective Service budget justification submitted to the Office of Mnagement and Budget for review and approval.  Nor is it mentioned in the current strategic plan for Selective Service  The automation proposal was introduced by Rep. Houlahan during a House Armed Services Committee markup session, without any hearing.

Rep. HoulAhan’s proposal would give the Selective Service System unprecedented authority to require any other Federal entity to hand over any records that might help identify or local potential draftees. But aggregating and matching data collected for unrelated purposes and maintained in different formats is hard. Huge cost overruns, unmet deadlines, and failure to meet project goals have been typical of large Federal database projects like this. The Selective Service System is a tiny agency with no capacity for such a task, and whose current database hasn’t been audited for accuracy in more than forty years.

It’s clear that trying to create a complete, accurate list from other Federal databases of all draft-eligible individuals, and only those individuals, including accurate addresses for provable delivery of induction notices, would be a fool’s errand. It’s less clear how much money might be wasted on the attempt.

The criteria for who is, and who is not, required to register with the Selective Service System are complex. Draft eligibility depends on factors including sex as assigned at birth and, for non-U.S. citizens, immigration and visa status. No current Federal database has all of this information, especially now that individuals can self-select the gender marker – “M”, “F”, or “X” – on Social Security records and U.S. passports, without regard for sex as assigned at birth.

Attempts to augment self-registration by automatically registering applicants for driver’s licenses in some states with the Selective Service System have already degraded the database by adding hundreds of thousands of foreign students, H-1 visa holders, and other draft-ineligible “non-immigrant” U.S. residents to the list that would be used to send out induction notices. The proposal to extend this automatic misregistration to California – to be considered at a hearing in the state Assembly on July 1st – would make the Selective Service database even less fit for purpose.

The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service considered “passive” registration for a future draft based on other databases, but ruled it out as an option after receiving a staff report that no Federal agency even tries to keep current addresses for all Americans.

Rep. Houlahan says that, “Automatic registration alleviates the burden on young men, preventing them from unknowingly committing a felony.”

Speaking practically, there can scarcely be any greater “burden” than being conscripted to kill or be killed on command. Rep. Houlahan is also wrong as a matter of law. It’s impossible to “unknowingly” commit a felony by failing to register for the draft, because an explicit element of any offense under the Military Selective Service Act is that a violation be “knowing and willful”. Inadvertent nonregistrants are, by definition, legally innocent.

Is Rep. Houlahan really as ignorant of the law she is proposing to amend as her statement suggests? Or is she knowingly misstating the law in an attempt to reinforce the empty threats of the Selective Service System and scare young people into signing up to be drafted even though they haven’t actually broken the law and are at no risk of prosecution?

Rep. Houlahan claims that, “Neglecting to register carries a large fine, prison time, a prohibition on any job with the federal government…, and limitations on access to programs such as student loans.”

In reality, “neglecting” to register carries no penalties. In the absence of evidence of knowledge and wilfulness, “neglecting” to register is neither a crime nor a basis for any civil sanctions.

There have been no prosecutions for nonregistration, much less fines or prison sentences, since 1986. That’s both because of the difficulty in most cases of proving that nonregistration was “knowing and willful”, and because even show trials and prison sentences for vocal nonregistrants whose public statements could be used to convict us proved conterproductive: they showed other nonregistrants that there was safety in  silence as well as safety in numbers.

In reality, registering for the draft is no longer required for Federal student loans. Has Rep. Houlahan forgotten her vote in 2020 in favor of the bill that included the provision repealing this requirement?

As for Federal jobs, the Office of Personnel Management, which handles appeals of denial of Federal employment on the basis of nonregistration with the Selective Service System, reported in a Federal Register notice earlier this year that, “For cases received by OPM to adjudicate, approximately one percent of these individuals are removed or denied employment.” In other words, 99 times out of 100, there’s no evidence of knowledge and willfulness, and nonregistrants can keep their Federal jobs.

In answer to complaints that she is trying to move the U.S. closer to a new draft, Rep. Houlahan says that, “Our nation has not had a military draft in more than a half-century, and I spend a great deal of my time in Congress working to ensure that we never will again.”

We’re not sure what Rep. Houlahan thinks she has done to to ensure that we won’t have another draft. We do know that she has never co-sponsored or voted for any of the bills or amendments, such as the Selective Service Repeal Act, that would walk back planning and preparation for a draft.

The way to avoid a draft is not to appoint and train draft boards, compile a list of those to be drafted, and automate the system to enable a push-button draft on demand — just as the way to avoid a nuclear war is not to build and deploy nuclear weapons and put them on hair-trigger alert.

Describing noncompliance with draft registration as “unknowing” denies agency to young men. Some “neglect” to register. Others choose not to register because they don’t want to be drafted.

The way for Congress to make a draft less likely is to repeal the Military Selective Service Act and abolish the  Selective Service System. The way for us all to prevent a draft is to resist its demands and to support young people in the resistance to being drafted by which they are helping to protect us all against the larger, longer, less popular wars for which a draft would be needed.

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