Congress is weighing automatic registration for wartime draft

Registration for Selective Service is already mandatory but a proposed law would automatically sign up men between 18 and 25 years old for national draft rolls.
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Registration with Selective Service is already mandatory but American men between 18 and 25 could be automatically signed up for the draft under a measure making its way through Congress. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Eric Burks.

American men ages 18 to 25 would be automatically signed up for the draft if a measure making its way through Congress becomes law. 

The proposal by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan would mean that men would be automatically registered for the draft when they turn 18. Under current federal law, all American male citizens and green card holders 18 to 25 years old must register with the Selective Service, but the requirement to do so falls on individuals. Those roles would be the basis of a military draft if Congress or the President decided to implement one, which Houlahan’s proposed measure does not address.

Women would continue to be exempt from Selective Service registration under the proposal submitted as an amendment to the national defense policy bill for fiscal year 2025.

During debate on her amendment last week, Houlahan argued that the measure would allow Congress to spend more money on “readiness and towards mobilization” instead of “education and advertising campaigns driven to register people.” 

According to the Selective Service’s annual report to Congress for 2022, the national registration rate that year for qualified men was 84%.

The Selective Service says it will spend $33 million this year on programs “to improve registration compliance rates” — money that might not have to be spent if registration was automatic.

“We really sort of saw this as a chance to both save government resources, save taxpayer dollars and to help young men avoid the special challenges later in life that can come from not having registered,” a congressional aide for Houlahan told Task & Purpose.

A majority of U.S. states, the four territories, and Washington D.C. automatically register eligible people for Selective Service when obtaining a driver’s license, driver’s permit, or other Department of Motor Vehicle identification. 

Men who knowingly fail to register can become ineligible for federal student aid or jobs at federal agencies, and have trouble obtaining security clearances. They can also face five years in prison or thousands of dollars in fines, according to a 2019 Congressional Research Service report.

Houlahan’s amendment also comes after a decline in registrations due to the FAFSA Simplification Act, which removed the option for Selective Service registration on student applications for federal tuition assistance. According to the agency, FAFSA applications historically accounted for 20% of annual registrations, officials said in the 2022 report to Congress.

The Selective Service System, the federal agency in charge of registrations maintains a database of more than 92 million registrant records. The measure would allow the agency to tap into other federal databases to enroll eligible Americans, the congressional aide said.

“This is not a collection of new information. This is just an example of using the information that federal agencies already have more efficiently,” the aide said. “The underlying law of who has to register remains the same.”

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Kate Kuzminski, deputy director of the Washington D.C. think tank, Center for New American Security’s program on Military, Veterans & Society said the measure could be simply bureaucratic as a way to make sure that the agency has up-to-date information.

“Another challenge is that the Selective Service relies on physical addresses,” Kuzminski said. “How many kids between the ages of 18 and 26 change addresses multiple times and perhaps never think to update that with selective service?”

The draft

The measure comes amid a resurgence of mandatory military service being considered and reinstated by other European nations as the war in Ukraine drags on and NATO assesses threats posed by Russia. Latvia, which borders Russia, reinstated the draft this year and Denmark plans to broaden the draft to include women, and extend the length of service. Last week, the UK’s governing Conservative Party vowed to mandate all 18-year-olds in Britain do a year of mandatory military or civilian national service if the party wins its July 4 national election.

But not all are in agreement. Hungary’s foreign minister called the “crazy proposals” to reinstate the draft across Europe “unacceptable.”

Kuzminski said policy conversations about military drafts haven’t been this widespread since World War II but that “in the face of a truly existential threat” like Ukraine with Russia or Taiwan with China, more countries are thinking about it. 

“But we are not having that conversation in the United States because there’s no constituency in Congress. Who’s gonna argue pro-draft, right? This is a break glass in case of emergency situation,” she said. “No one wants to be pro-draft.”

Even though someone is registered for the Selective Service, it does not automatically mean they will be inducted into the military should a draft be implemented. In the event that Congress and the President call upon the agency to use its registry for a draft, men would be called “in a sequence determined by random lottery number and year of birth.” They would then undergo mental and physical fitness tests before being deferred, exempted from military service or inducted into the U.S. armed forces, according to the Selective Service website.

Houlahan’s proposal also comes as certain military branches like the Army face challenges recruiting new troops due to image problems with Gen Z and Americans waning trust in public institutions. 

Houlahan’s amendment to the national defense policy bill was approved by the House Armed Services committee last week but it still must pass the full House and Senate before it may become law.

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