WASHINGTON — The process the Pentagon uses to draft young men for war would be eliminated under a bill being introduced Thursday by several House lawmakers, including Colorado congressmen Mike Coffman and Jared Polis.
Their legislation would abolish the Selective Service System — which has gone unused for a draft since 1973 — and it could save taxpayers as much as $23 million annually. It also would render moot the recent question of whether women should be drafted.
"It outlived its usefulness a long time ago," said Coffman, R-Aurora.
But the proposal would lock the U.S. Department of Defense into its current status as an all-volunteer force at a time when millennials are wary of fighting enemies such as the Islamic State.
A Harvard poll from December found that a "solid majority" of 18 to 29-year-olds supported the use of ground troops against the Islamic State, but fewer than 20 percent would be inclined to serve in that conflict.
In a January speech at the National Press Club, the head of the Selective Service defended the agency's mission and called it an "inexpensive insurance policy" against a "still dangerous and uncertain world."
"It is one of the nation's best national security bargains," said Director Lawrence Romo in prepared remarks. "It is the only time-proven means of mobilizing America's manpower for a significant crisis in a timely, orderly manner."
Yet the bill's authors are confident young people would join the fight if a future enemy ever threatened the U.S. — without the need for the Selective Service.
"We need to get rid of this mean-spirited and outdated system and trust that if the need should arise Americans — both male and female — will answer the call to defend our nation," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon in statement.
The bill is bipartisan. Its sponsors include Democrats DeFazio and Polis, and Republicans Coffman and Dana Rohrabacher of California. Still, it has an uphill battle given the volatility of the issue, as well as the gridlock that has long plagued Congress.
But its timing, coming at a point of major transition for the U.S. military, means there's a good chance it will make a splash.
In January, the Pentagon instituted a new policy that allows women to serve any role in the armed forces — including infantry and armor units that previously were available only to men.
The decision has led to a new round of debate about how the U.S. military should fill its ranks, and whether women should be required to register for the draft. The home page for the Selective Service website currently includes this line: "REGISTER: It's What a Man's Got to Do" in a message aimed at men ages 18 to 25.
The draft issue has become especially heated in the Republican presidential primary. While candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio indicated they would support the inclusion of women in the draft, Ted Cruz took the opposite stance at a recent town hall meeting as reported by Politico.
"The idea that we would draft our daughters to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close combat, I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain't doing it," Cruz said.
Coffman, a veteran who served in Iraq, said he agreed with the Pentagon's decision to allow women to take on any role in the armed forces — "so long as the physical and training standards are not in any way compromised." He added that if his bill was not successful, he would support adding women to the Selective Service.
But he remained opposed to a draft generally, in part because it was his belief it was administered unfairly during the Vietnam War.
"It seemed that those that came from influential or wealthy families always managed to navigate their way out military service during that time. And those I think from working class families disproportionately bore the brunt of that fighting," he said.
A Polis spokesman echoed Coffman's sentiment.
"In Rep. Polis's view, the selective service should be abolished, but if it is to continue, then he believes the draft should apply equally to women and men," wrote spokesman Craig Frucht in response to written questions.
He added Polis also agreed with the new Pentagon policy of allowing women to serve all roles in the armed services.