Amid Military Recruitment Challenges, Congress Debates Changes to the Draft

The United States military has not activated a draft in more than 50 years, but Congress is weighing proposals to update mandatory conscription, including by expanding it to women for the first time and automatically registering those eligible to be called up.

The proposals making their way through the House and Senate stand a slim chance of becoming law, and none would reinstate the draft compelling service right away. But the debate over potential changes reflects how lawmakers are rethinking the draft at a time when readiness issues have risen to the fore and as the Pentagon is facing recruitment challenges amid a raft of risks and conflicts around the world.

The House last week passed an annual defense policy bill that, along with authorizing $895 billion in military spending including for a 19.5 percent pay raise for troops, contained a bipartisan proposal that would make registering for the draft automatic and expand the maximum age from 25 to 26 years old. At the same time, a Senate committee last week approved a version of the Pentagon policy bill that would expand the registration requirement to women. Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the panel, has championed the draft parity proposal.

Current law requires most men between the ages of 18 and 25 to register with the Selective Service, the agency that maintains a database of information about those who might be subject to military conscription, commonly referred to as a draft. The program is aimed at allowing military officials to determine who is eligible as a conscript in the event that Congress and the president activate the draft, which last happened in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War.

Failure to register is considered a crime and can lead to a range of punishments.

At least 46 states and territories have laws that automatically register men for Selective Service when they get a driver’s license or apply for college, which has helped the program drive a high compliance rate. In 2023, more than 15 million men registered across the country, about 84 percent of those eligible.

Defense Department officials say the number of young Americans who volunteer for military service has dropped, continuing a trend of decline since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the latest reports, less than 1 percent of adults in the United States serve in active duty combat roles, a significant drop from the last draft era in the 1960s, when a far greater proportion of Americans served in combat.

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