Adding Women To Selective Service Is Up To Congress

When the Selective Service was revived in 1980, women were exempted from registration because of their inability to participate in combat. Now that the Pentagon has lifted its ban on women in combat units, some are asking if women will be required to register with the draft database. Audie Cornish puts that question to Lawrence Romo, director of the Selective Service.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The end of the ban on women in combat will make it tough for the military to keep any jobs off limits to women. That's what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today. He told NPR's Rachel Martin that physical standards for troops may be re-evaluated.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We are going to have to have high standards in order to ensure that these soldiers can do what we ask, that the country asks them to do.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But it'll be OK with you if someone in the services come back and say, these jobs, we're not going to let women in?

PANETTA: You know, I think getting rid of the barrier makes it a little tougher for them to come back and ask for exceptions.

BLOCK: We'll hear more of that interview with Panetta this Sunday on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

CORNISH: With the news that women in the military will no longer be excluded from combat comes this question: Should women be eligible for the draft? The United States has recruited an all-volunteer force since the draft ended back in 1973. But men between the ages of 18 and 25 are still required to register with the Selective Service, just in case the need for a draft should ever arise again.

Historically, women have been excluded from that list. So, does that change now? We turn to Larry Romo; he's director of the Selective Service System, to answer that question.

Welcome, Larry.

LARRY ROMO: Thank you. I'm happy to be here today.

CORNISH: So, to start, we don't have an involuntary draft today. But give us a little history of the Selective Service, how it came to be and why were women excluded.

ROMO: Yes, we obviously had the draft in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. And there was a suspension. But back in 1980, the most recent military Selective Service Act was passed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Carter asked to start the registration phase up again.

CORNISH: So once the Selective Service is established, why is it that women are excluded from registering?

ROMO: In 1980, Congress and the president decided that they should not include women because they were not included in the combat positions. That was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court case that was voted on in 1981, 6-to-3, where some men sued Selective Service, saying that they violated the Fifth Amendment.

CORNISH: And so how does this new move by the Defense Department change things?

ROMO: What's going to be required is the Defense Department has to submit a report to Congress and the president, saying how that would affect the military Selective Service Act. And based on that, Congress and the president can either continue the military Selective Service Act as is or they can pass a new law.

CORNISH: What kind of, do you think, cultural shift would this take? I mean, you would all of a sudden be looking at a nation of young women and saying, you need to get down here and sign up. I mean, do you think that would take some kind of outreach?

ROMO: Oh, significantly outreach, we would definitely get the word out, like we do with the men. And hopefully within a year or two, we would get the same percentage of women registering that we have with men, the compliance rate.

CORNISH: What is the compliance rate? Is it difficult to get men to actually sign?

ROMO: Up to age 25, for peacetime, it's 92 percent right now.

CORNISH: Now, what have you heard from lawmakers or the executive office about what will happen next?

ROMO: We actually didn't find anything out till I read about it in the media.

CORNISH: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMO: Yes. So I haven't got any information from any lawmakers. Nobody has asked us anything. We have engaged the Defense Department, saying that we're here if you need any information or guidance from us.

CORNISH: You mentioned that the decision would be up to Congress, essentially. Do you sense any momentum to get those changes going yet?

ROMO: The reports that I read, the Defense Department has till 2016 to implement these changes. So I don't see a sudden rush to do this. So I think Congress and the president will look at it. And I understand that the new secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, is supposed to have his confirmation hearings tomorrow. So I'm pretty sure that'll probably be addressed.

CORNISH: Well, Larry Romo, thank you so much for speaking with me.

ROMO: Thank you very much. You have a wonderful day.

CORNISH: Larry Romo is the director of the Selective Service System.

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