By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Now that the Defense Department has decided to allow women to serve in combat alongside men, New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel wants to give them another task: registering for the Selective Service when they turn 18, just as men do.
Rangel Friday introduced the All American Selective Service Act, which would double the number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 registered with the Selective Service in the event Congress decided to reinstate the military draft.
His proposal changes the conversation from whether women should be able to apply for any position they want, to the perhaps more animated discussion whether the government should conscript women into combat roles during wartime.
That's exactly what Rangel, a Korean War veteran and senior member of New York's congressional delegation, wants to happen. He has long maintained that the public would be less inclined to send American soldiers into battle if there was a universal draft instead of an all-volunteer army.
If women were also subjected to the draft, the reluctance would be even greater.
"Reinstating the draft and requiring women to register to the Selective Service would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation," Rangel said. "We must question why and how we go to war, and who decides to send our men and women in harm's way."
He has another proposal, the National Universal Service Act, which would require young adults to perform two years of national service either in the armed services or civilian organizations such as AmeriCorps.
But it's Rangel's Selective Service proposal that could have some traction this year.
The Defense Department plans to issue recommendations in May on how many combat positions will be opened to women and how they will be integrated into combat roles through 2016.
Part of the report will offer a legal opinion on whether it would be illegal for the Military Selective Service Act to cover only one gender after combat positions are opened to women.
A male-only military draft was ruled to be constitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1981 case Rostker v. Goldberg because the draft's primary purpose was to conscript combat replacements in wartime and women were excluded from those assignments. The court took a similar position in regard to registration with the Selective Service system.
The draft ended in 1973, and the military has relied on an all-volunteer force since then. Women have become an important part of that force. Last year the Defense Department said women comprised 14.5 percent of active military personnel, including 7.25 percent of officers and 10.9 percent of the senior enlisted personnel.
And the role of women has been changing over the past decade because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clearly defined battlefield and safer rear staging areas for those serving in noncombat support positions.
In a report last February, the Defense Department said its decision to allow units with women in noncombatant positions to co-locate with combat units did not go far enough to warrant a change in the Military Selective Service Act. Nor did the earlier decision to open some combat roles to women require a change in the law, the Defense Department concluded.
This latest step, however, could make a change legally necessary.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is awaiting that May report before deciding whether any changes need to be made to the Selective Service system, according to spokesman Claude Chafin.
"We are certainly going to exercise oversight of the implementation of the secretary's policy decision to open more service positions to women and part of that oversight is looking at the reporting requirement that's in the law," Chafin said.
Beth Livingston, a professor of human resource studies at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said that discussing whether women should register for the Selective Service could be another step in breaking down gender stereotypes.
"I think it would start a conversation about how our gender stereotypes aren't necessarily true and aren't necessarily based in reality," Livingston said. "I think it would start a conversation that included men and how unrealistic expectations toward masculinity can affect men."