By Charles Babington and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The new Democratic-controlled Congress will not seriously consider reinstating the draft, even if concerns about the military's strength and resiliency grow, party leaders said yesterday.
Key Democrats, including the incoming House speaker, House majority leader and chairmen of the House and Senate armed services committees, said they do not support a resumption of the draft. They predicted that the idea will gather little momentum in the 110th Congress, which convenes in January. Pentagon officials also restated their opposition to a draft.
Their comments came a day after Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who will chair the Ways and Means Committee, said he would again introduce a bill calling for a return to the draft, which has been suspended since 1973.
Rangel's previous bids to reinstate the draft stirred little interest in Congress but considerable agitation among some bloggers and talk radio hosts, who suggested the public was about to be blindsided. Yesterday, congressional leaders tried to allay such fears, saying the 2007-08 legislative agenda will not include a resumption of the draft.
"Mr. Rangel will be very busy with his work on the Ways and Means Committee, whose jurisdiction is quite a different jurisdiction," Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. Ways and Means handles tax matters, not military legislation.
Dismissal of the draft idea does not mean key lawmakers and analysts are not worried that the military is being stretched to its limits in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, with possible threats looming in Iran and North Korea. If higher troop levels are needed, several said, the answer is in recruiting more volunteers, not drafting people.
"The all-volunteer force has been successful," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who will chair the House Armed Services Committee. "But the Army is stretched thinner than paper."
Skelton said Americans soured on the draft during the Vietnam War era because many felt that the system of exemptions -- claimed mainly by wealthier and better-educated people -- "was downright unfair in many instances. . . . I think it would not be acceptable to the American people today."
To address the manpower concerns, Skelton said, "we must slowly disengage ourselves from Iraq" and focus on fully equipping all units before they go into combat. "The recruiting is coming along better," he said. "The retention, with the exception of captains and junior majors, is going well. . . . The bigger problem is readiness," which he said is mainly a matter of equipment.
Pentagon officials have long said they do not support reinstatement of the draft, which would send people unwillingly into the armed forces alongside the hundreds of thousands of professional troops who volunteer. Top officials have shown great pride that the military has been an all-volunteer force for more than three decades, even as the armed services face growing strain as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2004, when the same topic was raised in House hearings, top Pentagon officials said the Bush administration did not support the draft and had no plans to pursue it. Officials said yesterday they still do not believe that conscription is a viable option for today's military.
Army officials point to the turnaround in recruiting efforts over the past year -- during which the Army met an elevated goal of 80,000 new soldiers and continued to surpass reenlistment targets -- as evidence that the military can support itself as a volunteer force. Training draftees, who likely would leave the service as soon as possible, would cost millions of dollars with little return on the investment, they said.
Rangel, a Korean War veteran, said a draft would bring more upper-middle-class Americans into the military and would force policymakers to evaluate warmaking more carefully. But a recent Heritage Foundation study found that the all-volunteer military has a fairly good distribution of people from all family income and education levels.
"No evidence supports arguments for reinstating the draft or altering recruiting policies to achieve more equitable representation," wrote Tim Kane, director of the foundation's Center for International Trade and Economics.
Rangel has suggested incorporating military conscription into a larger program of mandatory national civilian service, in which Americans would perform nonmilitary functions.
But such a proposal probably "would go nowhere even faster than a military draft," said Robert Goldich, a retired expert on military manpower for the Congressional Research Service.
American traditions and courts frown on "involuntary servitude," he said. Moreover, he said, "what Vietnam did was sort of confirm a basic American attitude that the draft was something that was going to be used only for major conflict."
The U.S. military included about 2.2 million people in the mid-1980s, Goldich said, compared with about 1.4 million now. If the nation's policymakers decide the military must grow, they can probably achieve their goals by improving benefits and targeting people ages 22 to 25, rather than the customary 18- and 19-year-olds, he said.
"Clearly we've recruited a much larger all-volunteer force in the past" and can probably do so again, Goldich said.