WASHINGTON — President Obama supports requiring women to register for Selective Service when they turn 18 — becoming the first president to endorse universal draft registration since Jimmy Carter.
"As old barriers for military service are being removed, the administration supports — as a logical next step — women registering for the Selective Service," said Ned Price, a spokesman for Obama's National Security Council.
The White House had previously expressed neutrality on the controversy, but took a position in a statement to USA TODAY on Thursday.
But the timing of Obama's support makes it mostly symbolic, coming in the final weeks of his presidency and the day before the House will vote on a defense policy bill that strips a Senate-passed provision to add women to Selective Service.
Instead, the compromise version now calls only for a commission to study two related issues: Whether women should be included in Selective Service, and whether the Selective Service system itself should be abolished.
The White House made clear that Obama supports an all-volunteer force, and there are no plans to re-institute the draft. But Obama believes adding women to the draft would serve two purposes: showing a commitment to gender equality throughout the armed services, and fostering a sense of public service that comes from requiring draft registration as a ritual of adulthood.
The Pentagon also expressed its support for a universal draft Thursday. "It makes sense for women to register for Selective Service just as men must," said spokesman Peter Cook.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened all combat roles to women earlier this year, which "only strengthens our all-volunteer force by giving us access to 100% of America's population so we can recruit and retain the most qualified individuals," Cook said.
Removing the ban on women in all combat roles opened more than 200,000 jobs to women, most of them in Army and Marine infantry units. As a practical matter, women troops have been exposed to combat conditions for a long time. More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan out of nearly 2.5 million troops. In those wars, 152 women have died in battle or from non-combat causes and more than 950 have been wounded in action.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, had no comment on the White House announcement, said Dustin Walker, a spokesman.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., applauded the announcement.
"We need to remove arbitrary barriers to service by women in our armed forces," Reed said in a statement. "There is no draft in today's military, but it is difficult to say we have true equality if we continue with a Selective Service system that only requires compulsory service from men."
Kate Germano, chief operating officer of the Service Women's Action Network and a retired Marine officer, said her advocacy group views the White House announcement as a significant step toward improving national security. The draft would only be revived in time of a national emergency, and excluding women would mean lesser qualified men would be selected over women for the fight, she said.
"That doesn't make sense," Germano said. "We support this wholeheartedly."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the White House stand has value even it doesn't become policy.
"It’s symbolic," O'Hanlon said. "But it’s a good statement."
No one has been drafted into the military since 1973 — and indeed the last enlisted man drafted into the military retired years ago.
But Selective Service can still have far-reaching consequences for young men and — under the policy change now supported by Obama — young women. Those who fail to register for the draft can be denied federal student aid and loans, security clearances, government employment and job training programs. For immigrants, failing to register can be a roadblock to citizenship. Three-quarters of states make Selective Service a requirement for driver's licenses and other government benefits.
For Obama, adding women to the draft would also eliminate an inconsistency in the administration's policy on transgender status. The Education Department, for example, is pressuring schools to recognize a student's self-identified gender. But current Selective Service say the sex at birth determines whether someone is subject to the registration requirement.
Subjecting women to Selective Service has long made for intriguing politics, often fraught with ulterior motives.
Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., has introduced bills for years that would add women to the draft — but then also require a draft any time Congress declares war or authorizes military force for conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. His calculation: Requiring a draft would make Congress less likely to go to war in the first place. Senior military officials, over the years, say they prefer the volunteer force for its professionalism.
On the other side of the spectrum is Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a hawkish conservative and member of the Armed Services Committee who proposed adding women to the draft earlier this year. But his proposal was essentially offered as a dare, attempting to force an election-year vote on a policy he opposes.
Hunter blasted the White House announcement on Thursday as "purely politics, one last jab," given the action taken by Congress.
Hunter noted that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, had opposed opening Marine infantry units to women in his previous post as commandant.
"The military doesn't support this," Hunter said.
The incoming Trump administration is likely to review and potentially repeal allowing women to serve in ground combat units, Hunter said.
The Senate version of the defense policy bill, which includes a provision requiring women to register for the draft, passed in June, 83-15. In July, the House voted 217-203 to remove the provision from its version of the bill. A conference committee hashed out a compromise bill this week.
It was President Franklin Roosevelt who first proposed drafting women in order to address a shortage of military nurses in World War II.
"Since volunteering has not produced the number of nurses required, I urge that the Selective Service Act be amended to provide for the induction of nurses into the armed forces," he said in his 1945 State of the Union Address. "The need is too pressing to await the outcome of further efforts at recruiting."
Two months later, the House passed a bill to draft nurses, 347 to 42, but the bill died in the Senate, and the war soon ended.
In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg that an all-male draft was constitutional, with Justice William Rehnquist writing in a 6-3 decision that because Congress had excluded women from some combat roles, it was reasonable for Congress not require that they be subject to the draft.