Plans to require women to register with the Selective Service System for the possibility of a future military draft took another step forward after a key congressional panel backed the change as part of a must-pass military budget policy bill.
The House Armed Services Committee approved the proposal by a 35-24 vote, with support from all Democrats and several Republicans on the panel. Supporters said the time to include women in cases of national emergency is long overdue.
“The current male-only registration sends a message to women not only that they are not vital to the defense of the country, but also that they are not expected to participate in defending it,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., an Air Force veteran and author of the amendment.
“It also sends a message to men that they, for some reason, are uniquely and perhaps unfairly depended upon. This needs to change.”
Senate lawmakers included similar language in their draft of the annual defense authorization bill, making it likely that some version of the proposal will remain in the final compromise draft of the legislation.
The authorization bill — which includes items such as the annual military pay raise and specialty pay authorizations — has passed each year for more than five decades.
Currently only men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register for potential conscription in the event of a prolonged war. The new rules would include women on those lists too.
“Whatever the emergency is, if it’s so great that we have to go to a draft, we need everybody,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla. and an Army veteran. “We need men, women, gay, straight, any religion, black, white, brown. We need all hands on deck.”
The idea of requiring women to participate in the draft has been considered in the budget bill debate in the past, including in 2016, when lawmakers established a commission to research the idea.
Last year, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service offered its recommendation that women be included in potential draft lists, given the military’s prior decision to open all combat posts to women. That had been the legal basis for excluding women from conscription in the past.
Despite that, in June the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the men-only rule, saying a final decision was more appropriately left to Congress.
Conservatives on the committee objected to the idea, saying that the move upends traditional gender roles and is not urgently needed, given military commanders’ past stated preference for the all-volunteer force.
“I feel confident in an emergency that the women of this country would step up and volunteer as needed,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. “This current system does not fence off anyone .. It seems like this is a solution in search of a problem.”
But women rights advocates have argued for the change, saying inequitable treatment affects social perceptions of men and women.
Under the current system, if men fail to register for a possible draft, they can face criminal penalties and be ruled ineligible for federal loans and other benefits. Women do not face such punishment.
The full defense authorization bill is expected to be voted on by the full House later this month. A compromise version of the measure is expected to be finalized and set to the president later this fall.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.