WASHINGTON — As the U.S. military prepares to open all jobs to women beginning this year, a rift has emerged: Key decision-makers in the Defense Department and Congress seem to agree that the U.S. government needs to review its law outlining any future military draft, but differ on how any policy change should be made.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was among the latest to weigh in on the debate, telling a group of Marines in San Diego this week that he expects Congress to take up the issue. Women are not currently subject to a military draft as part of the Selective Service System, a variation of which has existed since 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I. The current version of the Military Selective Service Act requires that virtually all men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 26 register, most within 30 days of turning 18, but exempts women entirely.
"To me, it stands to reason that it'll be taken up by the Congress, this law, because of the decisions that we've made here in the department, which I'm sure are right," Carter said, speaking at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Wednesday.
The issue is largely academic at this point, but nonetheless emotionally charged. The U.S. government has not held a military draft since the Vietnam War, but Carter's decision in December to open up all jobs to women in the military has led to questions about the constitutionality of the existing Selective Service law. The rule has been challenged in court before, with the Supreme Court reversing the ruling of a lower court in 1981 in Rostker v. Goldberg and saying that the law could stand as it was because women were not allowed to join combat units. That, of course, is no longer the case.
Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2015 in a confirmation hearing that he thought a review of the Selective Service Act was "prudent," but noted that the issue was not solely an issue for the Defense Department. Rather, he said, it was "part of a much broader national discussion."
But Sen. Joni Ernst, R.-Iowa, an Army veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that she thinks the Obama administration "needs to take ownership of this secondary conversation" involving Selective Service that stems from Carter's decision on women in combat units.
"I think the administration needs to make their recommendation," Ernst said in an interview with reporters in her office. "I think it needs to be soon. I mean, they wanted these plans fully implemented by the first of April. Well, I would say that . . . in my mind, there was a hurry to get this done without thinking through some of the repercussions."
On Tuesday, the top officers in the Army and Marine Corps, Gens. Mark Milley and Robert Neller, both agreed that they think the Selective Service System should be opened to women while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, although the hearing did not get into exactly how the system should be changed.
One proposal to alter the law has been proposed this week. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., a Marine Corps veteran, and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R.-Mont., a former Navy SEAL, introduced the Draft America's Daughters Act of 2016. They signaled that they were likely to vote against their own bill , but argued that a debate on the issue in Congress is necessary.
Asked about the bill, Ernst said Thursday that she disagrees that Congress needs to engage on the issue until the administration addresses it.
Hunter's chief of staff, Joe Kasper, said Friday that the congressman greatly respects Ernst, "but there's a fundamental disagreement on the idea that this should be left to the administration."
Kasper said that it's Congress's duty to address eligibility for Selective Service, and that the Obama administration has made it clear to this point that Congress should determine if change is warranted.
"A draft — should it be needed — is intended to fill combat specialties because men are dying on the front lines in such high numbers. Simple as that," Kasper said. "There's definitely awareness that the idea of sending 18 and 20 year old women into combat — and what we're talking about here, is the infantry, where the objective is to find and kill the enemy — is very uncomfortable to discuss and not something anyone should be excited about."
The administration, Kasper said, created the dilemma when it decided to open all combat jobs to women. Every member of Congress should have to go on the record on whether or not he or she supports sending America's "daughters and sisters" into harm's way, he added.
To date, at least 146 female servicemembers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some 800 more have been wounded, according to Defense Department statistics.