Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Draft Issue: Politics

Over the past month or so, I've watched the question of a draft move quickly from the realm of nervous types with internet connections into the mass media and right on to the campaign trail. Depending on the partisan lenses with which one approaches this development, reactions are likely to range from "it's all a liberal plot to frighten people into voting for Kerry" to "it's about time we had a serious debate on the implications of Bush's foreign policy."

I'm well aware of the political implications of the draft, of the boost that Kerry would get from heightened fears in the electorate about the possible reinstatement of military conscription. For a number of reasons, the question of a draft needs to be debated soberly. After all, the draft touches on fundamental questions of national security and the pursuit of equality in society.

It is, however, an election year. Those responsible for deciding whether we are to have a draft in the United States are all politicking at present. Sober debate is in short supply. I say this in spite of the fact that today the United States House of Representatives debated a bill (H.R. 163) "to provide for the common defense by requiring that all young persons in the United States, including women, perform a period of military service or a period of civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security, and for other purposes." Actually, it would be more accurate for me to say that I raise the point about the absence of sober debate because the House today debated a bill to reinstate the draft.

Consideration of H.R. 163 in the House today was intended to make a political point, not to make policy. Likewise, the introduction of H.R. 163 back on January 7, 2003 was intended to make a political point, not to make policy. In January 2003, Democrats were trying to score political points. Today it was the Republicans doing the same. An explanation is in order.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced legislation at the beginning of the 108th Congress to reinstate the draft. H.R. 163 and its Senate companion, S. 89, were introduced shortly before the United States went to war in Iraq in an effort, first, to protest the Bush Administration's plans for a preventive war and, second, to underscore the injustice of asking the poor to bear a disproportionate burden in the defense of the United States (what was, in my view, Michael Moore's most effective argument in Fahrenheit 911). In defense of this interpretation of H.R. 163 (and S. 89), I offer Congressman Rangel's statement concerning H.R. 163:

There are some who believe my proposal is really meant to show my opposition to a unilateral preemptive attack against Iraq by the U.S. Others believe that I want to make it clear that, if there is a war, there should be a more equitable representation of all classes of Americans making the sacrifice for this great country.

The fact is, both of these objectives are mine. I truly believe that decision-makers who support war would more readily feel the pain of conflict and appreciate the sacrifice of those on the front lines if their children were there, too. I don't make too much of the fact that only four members of the 107th Congress, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of war with Iraq, had children in the military. That is only a symptom of a larger problem, in which it is assumed that the defense of our country is the sole responsibility of paid volunteers.

In an editorial published in the Dallas Morning News, Sen. Hollings and Rep. Rangel said, "We can't continue to call upon the same people, and the same segment of society, to make all of the sacrifices while other folks continue on with their lives as if nobody is dying out there." (While the Iraq war horse is, quite obviously, out of the barn, the question of justice remains salient.)

This, perhaps, explains the Democrats' reason for introducing legislation to reinstate the draft in January 2003. Why did the Republicans in the House of Representatives decide to debate H.R. 163 today?

The obvious and utterly benign explanation--that H.R. 163 had finally percolated up through the legislative process and just happened to be on the calendar for floor debate four weeks from election day--is absolutely wrong. No committee hearings were ever held on the bill. It was brought to the floor of the House under a suspension of the rules, a procedure ordinarily designed to "dispose of non-controversial measures expeditiously" (in the language of the House Rules Committee's Majority Office). The Republican leadership of the House decided to consider H.R. 163 as a "suspension" in order to dispose of it and thereby attempt to render it less significant as an election-year issue. As Rep. Rangel put it, "The Republican leadership decision to place the draft legislation on the Suspension Calendar is a political maneuver to kill rumors of the President's intention to reinstate the draft after the November election." (Rangel's entire statement--an explanation of his "no" vote on his own bill--is here.)

There you have the politics of the draft. The Democrats want us to believe a draft is coming if Bush is reelected in November. The Republicans want us to believe that the draft issue was laid to rest in the House of Representatives today. Which is it? The answer to that question must wait for another post.

(Don't expect to wait very long for the next discussion of the draft. I'm anxious to know the answer myself.)