The year’s newest and most consequential fight in Congress about disparate government treatment based on gender identity is actually the revival of a very old fight.
This is not the entirely 21st century question of whether transgender people should be able to use the restroom of their choosing — although conservative Republican lawmakers may launch politically charged, if altogether symbolic, legislative crusades to stop the Obama administration’s efforts on behalf of such a civil right.
Instead, the more far-reaching debate is about the equivalency of women and men in the armed forces, which has been addressed slowly and inconsistently since the Vietnam era.
Congress is suddenly confronted with a clear opening to essentially settle the matter, by deciding that both sexes should be required to register for the draft.
For the first time, women older than 18 would have to sign up with the Selective Service System under defense authorization bills approved by the Armed Services committees of both the Senate and House . So it’s now the default setting that draft registration will become gender-neutral by the end of 2016 — unless the rank-and-file on at least one side of the Capitol insist on sticking with the status quo.
There are good reasons to expect that’s what will happen, and that draft registration will remain an all-male endeavor for at least another year.
That’s because lawmakers in a campaign season are more focused on quick political posturing than big-time policy shifts. Plus, there’s a history of efforts to use the annual military bill as a vehicle for spurring big societal changes.
The first test arrives this week, when the House will vote on whether to delete the women-must-register provision from their defense measure. The debate looks to be contentious and the outcome close.
[ Related: Podcast: Congress Eyes Expanding Draft to Women ]
The language was added to the bill approved in committee last month, 32-30, winning the backing of six Republicans along with almost all Democrats. But several GOP members said they were backing the amendment only to be provocative.
Their aim, they said, was to make all of Congress take a stand on the question of the role of women in uniform — especially since the Pentagon last year opened all military jobs, including combat roles, to females . (Republican Duncan Hunter of California, a former Marine who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, offered the amendment but voted against it to signal his disapproval of sending women to battle.)
[ Related: Reaction Mixed to Women in the Draft] There was no similar “I dare you” tone on the Senate side, however, where Armed Services Chairman John McCain has been telegraphing for months that he was behind the change.
The Arizona Republican — now patriarch of a fabled four-generation Navy family and father-in-law of a captain in the Air Force reserve, Renee Swift McCain — took charge of promoting a registration requirement for women starting in 2018.
“Because the Department of Defense has lifted the ban on women serving in ground combat units, the committee believes there is no further justification in limiting the duty to register under the Military Selective Service Act to men,” McCain’s committee said in announcing last week’s approval of the bill, which happened after a debate that by custom was not open to the public. “Furthermore, each uniformed chief of the services testified to their personal support of including women in the requirement to register.”
[Related: Women Grab Your Rifles] Cultural conservatives are promising a Senate floor fight no matter what the outcome in the House.
“This is a highly consequential, and for many American families, a deeply controversial decision that deserves to be resolved by Congress after a robust and transparent debate in front of the American people,” said Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee , who cast one of the three votes against the bill in committee.
Going the next step and conscripting any young adult seems very remote. The top brass agree the all-volunteer force is working well and contend that reviving the draft would spoil the ranks with people who have no business in uniform.
The last draft was in 1973, near the end of Vietnam War. President Jimmy Carter revived registration six years later, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan heightened Cold War tension, but he could not persuade Congress to make both sexes register.
Some young men sued, arguing that the male-only system violated their equal protection rights. But in 1981 the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it was constitutional to exclude women because the military had no plans for their assignment to combat.
The GOP culture warriors are readying amendments to spending bills that would effectively stop both the Justice Department’s lawsuit against North Carolina’s law restricting bathroom usage, and the Education Department’s efforts to ease transgender access to the nation’s public school restrooms. The byzantine budget process and the short legislative calendar mark both efforts as serious long shots.
As a general rule it’s tougher to get bill language removed with a floor amendment than it is to get a provision included.
Still, if one chamber votes against registering women, and the other sticks with it, the final resolution will be left for negotiations in the fall. (The defense authorization bill has defied the Hill’s penchant for gridlock and has been enacted without fail for 55 consecutive years.)
Past practice suggests that heated deliberations over changing Selective Service may be suspended in order to reserve time and energy for the horse-trading on more immediately pressing defense policy disputes — starting with an $18 billion disagreement about the overall amount to be spent, and which weapons and personnel should get rewarded or short-changed in the process.
In addition, the Armed Services panels have a long record of getting drawn into emotional conflicts on hot-button topics — only to find a temporarily calming way out with half-measures, independent studies or outright delay. Examples include the initial "don’t ask, don’t tell" approach toward gays in the military, the balky way Congress repealed that policy and its still-unsettled approach to combating sexual assaults in the ranks.
Look for draft registration by women to get added to that roster, at least this year.