The Unseemly Death of an Amendment to Draft Women

How a fight against social progress in the U.S. military collapsed in on itself.

Air Force General Lori J. Robinson is the new commander of NORAD (Brennan Linsley / AP)

A proposal to expand the military draft to include women was intended to obstruct progress toward gender integration in the military. But instead, it underlined just what it was trying to destroy, dramatic shifts in the way the dynamics of the culture wars are leaving their mark on the military.

During the House Armed Services Committee review of this year’s defense-funding bill late last month, California Republican Duncan Hunter introduced an amendment that would, for the first time ever, include women in the draft. It was a curiouser episode than it first appears: Hunter, a vocal opponent of women serving in combat, offered the amendment as a dare, confident that progressives on gender equality in the service were all talk. He voted against his own proposal.

In theory, anyway, this was a clever ploy. A 1981 Supreme Court decision had specifically linked women’s exemption from the draft to their ineligibility for combat, and with that ineligibility gone, Hunter saw the draft issue as a way to cut to the heart of the whole matter of women warriors. He gambled that liberals would balk when faced with the reality that women might have to, as he said, “rip the enemy’s throats and kill them for our nation.”

The thing is, they didn’t. Hunter and his fellow opponents of women in combat were wrongfooted when it turned out that support for integration is more solid than they thought, and his “gotcha amendment”—as one opponent on the committee termed it—passed. That, in theory, should have sent it and the larger bill on for a vote on the House floor. Meanwhile the same measure made it through the committee’s counterpart in the Senate, where it found surprisingly strong support, including from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It was an accidental victory of a progressive cause in the deeply conservative political territory of military policy due to the overreach of an opponent of that very cause. Then the mixture of political logic and parliamentary procedure started to get surreal.

Representative Thornberry, the committee’s chair, had a problem with the accidental result of his own committee’s vote to expand the draft registration—he told the Washington Post that he “didn’t probably do everything I should have” to make sure it lost in committee. But he was also unhappy with the fact that the vote took place at all. A House Armed Services Committee aide I spoke with said that Hunter and Thornberry had agreed that Hunter would propose the amendment to make a point and then offer to withdraw it before a vote—a sort of parliamentary ritual designed to let him register his opinion. But Hunter didn’t withdraw, and it sent Thornberry scrambling for legislatively murkier options for killing the measure before it could hit House floor, where it was predicted to pass.

The House Rules Committee, which reviews every bill that’s on its way to the floor, offered him a way out. But it wasn’t easy. Budget hawks in Congress have created a strict standing rule that if a cost-saving bill makes it out of committee, it can’t be changed in a way that makes it more expensive. Any expense has to be covered by a counterbalancing savings. And oddly enough, Hunter’s amendment to vastly expand a federal bureaucracy was going to save the federal government money, in a way liberals probably wouldn’t be overly keen on: Eligible Americans who fail to register for the Selective Service can’t get expensive federal services like Pell Grants, and enough people don’t register that the expansion was going to be a net-positive for the federal balance book.

In the end, Representative Pete Sessions, chair of the Rules Committee, engineered a solution. When Thornberry tried to undo the damage by introducing an amendment to the bill in the Rules Committee that would cancel out Hunter’s draft expansion, replacing it with a study examining the necessity of having a draft at all, Sessions was sympathetic to his fellow Texan’s cause. The chairman, wanting to protect “young women from being mandated to submit their personal information to the federal government to sign up for the selective service,” used the authority of his office to exploit a quirk of parliamentary procedure. So even though Thornberry’s amendment was voted down by the Rules Committee, Sessions wrote its language into the original language of the bill, which makes it “considered as adopted” by the Committee. Neat trick.

That’s how the defense bill that the House voted on on the evening of May 18 came to contain no language expanding the Selective Service. But that may not alter the ultimate result. Hunter and Thornberry were concerned about jurisdiction—they don’t think the president should be able to hand down major defense policy changes like gender integration of the combat arms without their review. But by scrubbing the issue from the docket, they may have left it to be decided by the courts, which are even now considering whether the end of the combat ban for women makes “deferential treatment” in Selective Services registration unconstitutional.

Also, the Senate’s version of the defense-funding bill still contains the draft expansion. Somehow, both houses of Congress have to agree on an identical bill. And once they do, then there’s a good chance President Obama will veto it over a separate funding fight anyway: The House bill appropriates the funds marked for foreign wars to keep bases that the Pentagon wants to shutter open, and the White House has already threatened to send it back unsigned.

But no matter what happens to the defense-funding bill, it appears likely that the gender integration of the military will proceed. Women have served in many military roles for a long time, and proven that they are capable of passing the same rigorous physical and mental tests men do.

Shortly before Hunter offered his self-defeating amendment, Army Captain Kristen Griest became the first woman to pass the qualification course that was her final hurdle to taking command of an infantry unit. That was a major event, but the milestones are so frequent now that it’s impossible to keep track of all but the biggest ones.

On May 17, the same day the House was using the parliamentary dark arts to kill the draft expansion for the time being, the Senate confirmed Eric Fanning as Secretary of the Army. He is the first openly gay head of a service, and that’s a big deal. Less than five years before, on July 20, 2011, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, and Americans stopped having to choose between lying and serving.

On May 15, Air Force General Lori Robinson became the first woman to lead one of the nation’s most important combat commands, namely NORAD. As the Dan Eliot of the Associated Press noted, “None of the officials mentioned during the ceremony that Robinson is the first woman to lead a U.S. combatant command. Instead, the focus was her abilities and the service of her predecessor.”