Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah prepares for a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee in April.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah prepares for a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

If the Government Made People Do Good, Would that Be Bad?

Senator Mike Lee fears enrolling women in the Selective Service is a dangerous precedent that may lead to mandatory service for things like national security and the public good.

When you hear conservative lawmakers rail against the idea of requiring America’s young women to register for the draft alongside its men—an issue the Senate is set to commence squabbling about after the Memorial Day recess—what is your first reaction: (a) Lord, save us from this herd of retrograde, sexist swine; (b) Thank heavens a few leaders are still willing to stand up to such PC nonsense; (c) Wait! There hasn’t been a draft since 1973. With all the urgent problems confronting Congress, why is this even on anyone’s radar? 

I am, of course, aware of what an awesome culture-war hot topic the question of registering women for Selective Service has become—even within the confines of the GOP. Back in February, after White House contenders Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio voiced support for the move, National Review denounced this “step toward barbarism.” “Men should protect women,” the magazine asserted. “They should not shelter behind mothers and daughters.” In a separate piece, top editor Rich Lowry slammed the military leaders who back the idea as abetting “social-justice warriors” looking to sow gender confusion: “Of course, a political agenda—namely the insistence there is no meaningful difference between men and women, even when it comes to military combat—is the entire point.” And presidential wannabe Ted Cruz was aiming straight at his base’s paternalistic gut when—after calling Christie, Bush, and Rubio “nuts”—he raised the specter of his own wee daughters being forced into military fatigues and decried the very notion as “immoral.”

Still, it’s not as though cultural warriors lack fodder, what with the never-ending battles over abortion and guns, not to mention the transgender potty crisis currently roiling the land. Why waste time and outrage over who should be eligible for a draft that—let’s be serious—ain’t ever coming back?

I decided to put this question to the folks in Senator Mike Lee’s office, given that the Utah Republican has gone so far as to introduce legislation aimed at barring women from the draft. I figured that Lee, a solid social conservative and Tea Party darling, could give me a thorough account of both the evil of forcing women to the front lines and the insanity of government kowtowing to political correctness.  

But, as it turns out, Lee’s opposition stems not so much from his culturally conservative impulses as his libertarian ones. Specifically, the senator has become convinced that the push to register every young American for the draft, women included, is in fact a stalking horse for Big Government’s push to establish a system of compulsory national service.

The senator is deadly serious about this. In his most recent weekly “Issue in Focus” email to constituents, Lee noted that the soon-to-be-debated defense authorization bill currently includes two provisions that, “when considered together, could have far reaching and long lasting effects outside of the national security context.” One is the move (championed by Senator John McCain) to open the draft to women. The other aims to create a “National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service” that would “consider methods to increase participation in military, national, and public service in order to address national security and other public service needs of the nation.” Lee connects the dots, warning: “Some in Congress have been pushing for mandatory public service for decades, and this commission, coupled with the introduction of women into the draft, would be the perfect way to lay the groundwork for such a policy.” He pledges: “I will be looking for ways to strip both of these ill-considered policies” from the bill.

For Lee, this is not about gender roles. Sure, the senator wants to prevent your beloved daughters from being shipped off to some Middle Eastern hellhole to battle ISIS. But he also wants to ensure that your sons cannot be conscripted into building houses for poor folks in Appalachia or teaching remedial math on Chicago’s South Side.

At this point, some of you may feel moved to ask: What’s so bad about national service? Isn’t it one of those virtuous, bipartisan issues that appeals to liberals’ communitarianism and conservatives’ patriotism alike?

Yes, it is, insists AnnMaura Connolly, president of Voices for National Service, which works to increase federal funding for service programs. “There are tons of Republicans who are active supporters,” she assures me, pointing to members in both the House (Hal Rogers, Daniel Webster, Tom Cole, Luke Messer) and Senate (Orin Hatch, Kelly Ayotte, John McCain). President George W. Bush was a big advocate, she reminds me, “as was 41.” (Former W. speechwriter turned columnist Michael Gerson is forever trumpeting the cause.) If anything, she says, “support among Republicans continues to grow. We saw in this last round of appropriations’ battles an increase for Americorps in a Republican-led Congress.”

For Lee and others, however, creating a government commission charged with increasing participation in national service looks an awful lot like the first step toward mandating national service—especially with the national-service-happy McCain involved. (McCain, critics point out, chairs the Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for the contents of the defense authorization bill.) Case in point: In Conservative Review earlier this month, Daniel Horowitz fretted about the proposed commission: “While this provision sounds innocuous, some conservatives might be concerned that given McCain’s long record of support for Americorps and other public service programs, he will use this program to compel young adults (now including women) into some sort of public service.”

Connolly stresses that, while there are those who support mandatory service, her group—and most of the lawmakers it works with—does not think in those terms. “What we want is for there to be a cultural expectation that everybody will contribute to their country—not be compelled to do so.”

But conservatives know how that slippery slope works: Today, more funding is made available to create additional Americorps jobs; tomorrow, 18-year-olds are being forced to man soup kitchens in the name of patriotism. And that specter disturbs government-leery conservatives like Lee as much as the thought of America’s young women marching off to war.

Which is a step up from sheer sexism, I suppose.