The House of Representatives has passed a bill which unwisely restricts the President's power to make long overdue reforms in the present selective service system. In resolving the differences between this House bill and the much less respective measure passed by the Senate, conferees should avoid sacrificing an enlightened draft policy--one that follows the recommendations of the President's Commission on the draft--for the sake of compromise.
The most pernicious provision in the House bill is the veto power it gives Congress over any national draft lottery, the Free and Impartial Random [FAIR] system proposed by the President. The Senate, despite some apprehensions about FAIR, made no attempt to hamstring the President; the conference committee should follow the Senate's version, and chuck out the veto. It is unlikely, of course, that both houses of Congress would veto the Presidentially sponsored FAIR system within the 60-day time limit set by the bill, even if the House version won out. But the threat of such a veto would give Congressmen--particularly a small minority of committee chairmen and party leaders--confusing and capricious influence over the White House.
The draft will remain inequitable--even with the lottery--if the second major fault in the House bill is not corrected: the provision for a continuation of undergraduate deferments. It is quite probable, unfortunately, that the conference committee will accede to the House on this crucial issue. While the Senate bill left the President with authority to eliminate deferments, the committee report accompanying that bill strongly recommended that the President let students graduate before drafting them. So there is not likely to be much strong opposition from the Senate conferees to the House provision.
If the conference committee adopts the House plan, 19-year-olds could choose between the service or a college deferment until their graduation or 24th birthday (whichever came first). Such an option would cripple the President's plan to ease the heavy burden of conscription on lower income groups through the lottery system. It would permit 19-year-olds who have the resources to attend college to wait out the Vietnamese war in school while forcing young men without those resources to serve.
The House version does not even rule out graduate school deferments. It would leave to a National Manpower Resources Board the right to recommend--on the basis of graduate school studies or occupations--which lives should not be risked in the military. The intent of the President's Commission report and the Senate bill (to prevent legal draft dodging through endless graduate deferments) would be abandoned.
Discarded too--if the House has its way--will be the several years worth of careful court litigation required so far to arrive at just procedures for the treatment of conscientious objectors. The House bill demands a return to the old requirement of objection solely on grounds of "religious training and belief." This provision is, fortunately, legally useless. As Rep. Donald Edwards (D.-Calif.) pointed out in the House debate over the bill, the wording would allow the courts to continue to interpret "religious belief" broadly.
In addition to dispensing with this restriction, Congress and the President should seriously consider sanctioning by law conscientious objection to particular wars. The arguments against such particular objections, like those raised last Sunday by University Preacher Charles Price, are not convincing. Price contended that there is no "principle" involved in objecting solely to the Vietnamese war. But certainly the moral aversion to fighting anything but aggression is as much a "principle" as objection to fighting itself. And deciding what constitutes fighting is as much a matter of "interpretation" as deciding what constitutes aggression.
Congress is probably not ready to handle the problem of objection to particular wars in this session, but in the meantime, the conference committee on draft legislation should throw out the House's proposed restrictions on regular conscientious objectors. It should urge the President to cut deferments and institute a lottery system as soon as possible.