President Carter, with his call for draft registration, looks like a commander who struck off in a new direction, looked behind him and saw to his dismay that the troops were not following.
Carter and House Democratic leaders are now trying to whip the rebellious troops into line. The troops in this case are the 435 members of the House, and particularly the 54 on the Appropriations Committee who are the immediate target.
Carter and his lieutenants will exhort them to follow the president, not the subcommittee that refused last week to go along with registering 8 million men and women for the draft this year.
The test of strength, expected as early as this week, is significant from several standpoints.
First, it will test whether Carter can continue to count on Congress to support foreign policy initiatives as long as he ties them to Iran or Afghanistan. The administration contends that starting draft registration this year will send a signal of American resolve to the Soviets.
"Time is on our side," contended Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), an opponent of draft registration. He said it will become increasingly harder to wrap draft registration in the flag "as Iran and Afghanistan go off the front pages and inflation moves onto the front pages."
"I don't think the thing has jelled yet," said Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.), when asked to predict how the full Appropriations Committee would vote on the registration issue.
McDade voted against the president last week when the independent offices subcommittee blocked the money that Carter needs to begin registering young people for the draft. McDade thinks the original proposal from the Selective Service -- to wait until after an emergency to start registering -- makes more sense than Carter's plan to do this immediately. Carter's plan would save seven days and cost an extra $14 million.
"The House Appropriations Committee is a special kink of committee, continued McDade, a veteran member. "It tends to be terribly interested in national security issues, but also terribly interested in budgetary considerations, and rightly so."
On the draft registration, he said, members are not dealing with a complicated missile or bomber that some intimidating experts insist is vital to the county's defense. Registering people amounts to setting up a government bureaucracy.
"You're talking about something most of us have done," McDade said. "We have a more basic familiarity with what we're dealing with here."
House Democratic Leader Jim Wright of Texas, as he goes around pressuring lawmakers to support the president on registration, is not talking about bureaucratic efficiency but about the patriotic duty to support the president. Voting against Carter, Wright contends, would make the United States look vacillating and undecided."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) scoffs at Wright and his allies "as they work over the Appropriations Committee at 100 miles an hour." "Members are wondering why they have to leap through all these flaming hoops," she said. "For something the administration opposed five months ago." h
The answer from White House lobyists, Schroeder added, "amounts to saying, 'If the commander-in-chief says eat your foot, eat your foot. Don't confuse the situation with the facts.'"
Even if the House and Senate members should leap through all those "flaming hoops" this year, Schroeder asserted, the only registration Congress will finance is for men, not women. Wright agrees with Schroeder on this point, if nothing else.
"Then the American Civil Liberties Union, et al, will go sue," Schroeder predicted, the courts will throw out men-only registration as discriminatory "and those who voted for it are going to look like dummies."
Last year, the representatives and senators enjoyed the political luxury of supporting their commander-in-chief by voting against registration of men. Rep. G. V. (Sonny)Montgomery (D-Miss.) sponsored this proposal -- one that would have delayed the politically unpopular registration process until after the 1980 election.
As representatives filed into the House on Sept. 12 last year, they were handed a White House Office of Management and Budget fact sheet from administration lobbyists. It said:
"Peacetime registration is not needed to assure adequate millitary manpower in a future mobilization." The Selective Service System, it continued, "has developed a perfectly feasible plan" to register people after an emergency is declared, not before.
Thus reassured by the commander-in-chief and grateful for the political escape hatch, the House voted 252 to 163 against the Montgomery registration requirement.
Schroeder and anti-registration lobbyists took a keen interest and indications pointed to a proposal for registering people if an emergency is declared, but not before.
"You'll like the conclusion of our report," Selective Service director Bernard D. Rostker promised Barry Lynn, leader of a coalition of national organizations against registration and the draft. Lynn said that conversation took place in early January.
Schroeder said she, too, received all kinds of similar assurances from administration officials, including John P. White, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The Selective Service report dated Jan. 15 suddenly became unavailable when Carter, in his Jan. 23 State of the Union address, ignored its key recommendations and called for registering young people now.
The president's registration decision apparently stunned many administration officials -- including White, who was the key executive working on the manpower report.
"White told me he did not know that president was going to call for registration until 6 p.m. of the night of the State of the Union address," Schroeder said.
White, in a separate interview, declined to go into the inner decision-making itself, but said the Selective Service recommendation to wait until after an emergency to start registering was rejected because this option assumed "the system is up and running and all working well."
Besides, said White, the president in calling for registration "is indicating to the world our resolve."'
As word spread around the capital that Carter had rejected the advice of his own Selective Service director in calling for immediate registration, the agency's report became a hot item. The administration tried to keep it hidden, denying Schroeder's request for a copy. She became incensed and filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Feb. 9 to get it.
"The post mobilization option," the Selective Service report continued, "should substantially exceed defense requirements, employs the fewest number of full-time personnel and costs the least.
"While costs and staffing should not be the determining factor, the reduced delivery times provided by other options is redundant and unnecessary."
Selective Service also said in its report that its general counsel concludes that to meet "current constitutional law requirements of equal protection, any system of registration for an induction into the armed forces must include both men and women."
Manpower chief White said the Justice Department disagrees, contending that men alone could be registered without infringing on their rights.
The registration battle, which will be fought out again in the Senate if the House goes along with Cartger, also will test the political muscle of college students and others who would be required to register. Under Carter's plan, men and women born in 1960 and 1961 would have to register at their local post offices.
In one angry and perhaps untypical reaction within that constituency, Jordan Fox, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland, called a campus news conference last week to tell fellow students that Selective Service's findings showed "we've been had."
Carter, who met with Fox and other student leaders at the White House on Feb. 15, said: "I know it has been a highly volatile question of the registration for the draft. I have no apology to make for it. I think it is the right decision."
Appropriations Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) warns that voting down the registration bill would amount to "refusing money for what the president has authority to do."
"If we don't do it," agreed Chairman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) of the subcommittee, "we'll be sending the wrong signal to the Russians."
But Rep. Lawrence Coughlin of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee, who joined five other colleagues last week in blocking money for registration, disagrees.
The Carter plan, Coughlin said, amounts to "misleading out people that we are doing something significant when we're not."