Last year at about this time, most Congressmen laughed at--and then dismissed--the efforts of conservative Southern senators to revive draft registration. This year, however, things are different.
On the Senate floor today, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) will probably introduce another in a long line of amendments he has written to filibuster President Carter's plan to register young men for the draft. If observers' predictions hold true, Hatfield's amendment will do little but delay his colleagues from giving their stamp of approval to the measure. Given House and Senate consent for registration, Carter may be able to sign the proposal into law as early as next week. A little more than a month later, officials say, the government would ask 19- and 20-year-old men to report to their local post offices to register by mail.
Egged on by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and eager to protect his political fortunes, Carter last winter sounded a clarion call for a return to draft registration. The allvolunteer forces are a dismal failure and registration is a military necessity, Carter told the American people in his State of the Union address. Now, although Carter's original proposal to register men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 is no more than a shadow of its former self, the president may be on the verge of a major victory.
Bob Mills, a staff member of the Senate Appropriations Committee--which last month approved spending the funds Carter requested--has been watching the registration proposal ever since it first went before the House. Mills has seen a large number of White House and Pentagon lobbyists troop by his office in the past two months in search of the votes they need to secure registration. But what surprises Mills more than the undeniably political nature of the Carter proposal is what he calls the plan's basic unworkability. "Frankly," he says, "I just don't think this thing has been well thought out from start to finish."
In late March, anti-registration forces converged on Washington to rally against registration in a gathering that reminded many of demonstrations against the Vietnam war. Since then, however, anti-registration activity on college campuses and across the nation has diminished significantly. Anti-registration spokesmen attribute the downswing in part to a natural attitude shift that accompanies the end of any school year.
"I don't think that people are any less concerned about registration," Nora Leyland, a spokesman for the Boston Alliance Against Registration and the Draft says, adding "But the end of the term is here and people have to pass their finals." James Bristol, director of the national anti-draft effort for the American Friends Service Committee, concurs with Leyland's judgement but declines to explain the "cooling off" period of April and May.
Bristol and spokesmen for other national anti-registration groups, however, point to the reaction that greeted Carter's program immediately after the president's speech. Students across the nation demonstrated against the president's plan, and at Harvard more than 800 turned out on one of the coldest nights of the year to protest the proposal. But since the bill entered Congress in February, registration news has faded from the pages of newspapers and activism has decreased.
"The Congressional decision keeps dragging on and on," Bristol says, adding, "Maybe people are fed up with that." Steven Leifman, national director fo the Coalition of Independent Colleges and University Students, suggest that "students don't really feel that registration is that big of a threat--it's not something that's going to hurt them tomorrow."
If and when Congress passes the president's proposal, anti-registration activists predict mass protests on college campuses and elsewhere. David Landau '72, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and deputy director of the National Coalition Against Registration and the Draft, a group of about 50 religious, peace and student organizations committed to fighting the president's plan, says that the present belies the future. "There's a lot of brooding underneath the surface," Landau says.
Up until now, Landau contends, a number of dissatisfied people in the country have had nowhere to focus their energies. If instituted, draft registration will "provide a focus for the national debate over military and foreign policy," Landau says. Bristol echoes that judgment. "The opposition isn't dead," Bristol argues. "Once it becomes law--and the dates are announced for registration--there's not only going to be a lot of non-registration but also civil disobedience at post offices" and other forms of protest.
Administration spokesmen disagree with opponents predictions. "Congress has already taken all the heat it's going to take for registration," says one White House insider. Both pro- and anti-registration forces agree that if registration begins during the summer--as now seems likely--any forms of protest would be severely diluted.
Estimates vary greatly over what would happen if registration became law. Laudau says 40 to 50 per cent of the 4 million men who would be required to register may not comply. He cites a poll of University of Wisconsin freshmen, in which 35 per cent of respondents indicated they would not register and another survey by Blackdata, Inc., which indicates that three of every four Black men born in 1960 or 1961 prefer the current system of an all-volunteer force.
White House spokesmen deny such claims. "No one really knows what's going to happen," says one administration lobbyist. "The mood out there is nothing like what was going on in Vietnam." Mills says that while the administration has been downplaying the possibilities of noncompliance, "they have not produced anything to support their case."
At the very least, Landau argues, non-compliance rates will match 1973-74 levels of about 10 per cent. "Even if there's only a 5- per-cent non-compliance," one Senate aide points out, "you'll still have a possibility of 200,000 felony cases." This time, moreover, Canadian officials have promised to barricade the roads leading north. Analysts point out that the administration has not made careful plans in case of massive non-compliance. The Justice Department is not equipped to catch up with large numbers of non-registrants. Even if it did find all the offenders, one lobbyist points out, the sudden barrage of 200,000 felony cases would saturate the nation's courts.
Some anti-registration activists feel that the government's real problem will be those people who do not vocally denounce registration but simply ignore the president's order. When he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bristol warned its members that there's going to be a lot of "quiet absence."
Even if the Selective Service System (SSS)-- which currently sports a "skeleton crew" of 100 employees nationwide--can gear up to carry out nationwide mail registration, its problems would be far from over. "Implicit in the president's post office plan is that the registrants will keep the SSS informed of their whereabouts," Mills points out. "Anyone who thinks that 19-and 20-year-olds will stop to fill out a 'change of address' form has his head in the sand," he adds.
Officials on both sides of the question, however, say the greatest challenge to any registration effort may occur in the courts. Although the registration plan before the Senate does not include women--a House subcommittee easily quashed such efforts earlier this year--Hatfield or another registration opponent may introduce such an amendment.
A federal district court in eastern Pennsylvania is finally hearing arguments in a 1971 case that challenges the nation's registration system on grounds of sexual discrimination. Observers say the case may reach the Supreme Court, and, if it does, would not only challenge the legality of male-only registration, but also open the doors to innumberable similar challenges.
An even more serious question, in Mills' opinion, is what the Justice Department plans to do about people who request alternate service or declare that they are "conscientious objectors." The bill the Senate is considering includes an amendment introduced by Hatfield, asking registrants to indicate whether they will seek conscientious objector status, and even SSS studies indicate that such figures could be high.
In January, the director of the SSS issued a report in which he concluded that premobilization registration was not only unnecessary, but fraught with technical and financial difficulties. Later that month, the president repudiated the report's findings by asking Congress to revive draft registration. Six months later, the president's call for registration seems to have posed many more dilemmas than it may solve. If congress this week approves the president's plan to begin registering 19- and 20-year-old men for the draft, the protests which follow that action may only be the start of the government's problems.