WASHINGTON — There is nothing as permanent in Washington as a federal agency. Once created, government bureaucracies are almost impossible to kill, no matter how outdated. Consider the desperate attempt of the Selective Service System and its allies to reverse the House Appropriation Committee’s decision to terminate the agency.

Two decades ago, President Jimmy Carter, shocked that the Soviet leaders would lie to him and invade Afghanistan, decided to reinstate registration of 18-year-old men. Afghan guerrillas armed with Stinger missiles, not Carter’s list, finally ousted the Soviet invaders.

Candidate Ronald Reagan promised to eliminate registration, but after the Soviets pressured the Polish government to crack down on the Solidarity labor union President Reagan decided to preserve the program. Neither the Poles nor the Russians took much notice; internal failure eventually caused both communist regimes to collapse.

Since then the Cold War has ended, the Soviet military has imploded, and the United States dominates the globe akin to the way the British empire and perhaps even the Roman empire once did. The U.S. has proved itself capable of bombing into oblivion small nations like Yugoslavia, without suffering a casualty.

The changing international environment caused the Defense Department to change its mobilization requirements. In 1979, it wanted the first draftee within 13 days of mobilization. Now it doesn’t desire the first conscript until six months plus 13 days after mobilization, a contingency likely to occur only if the Martians finally invade Earth. Indeed, the Pentagon acknowledged in 1993 that dropping the signup would have “no effect on military mobilization requirements, little effect on the time it would take to mobilize and no measurable effect on military recruitment.”

But now Gil Coronado, director of the Selective Service, says the signup is “most essential to U.S. national security.” Why? Because President Bill Clinton says it is. Right. Mr. Avoid-Service-At-All-Costs is an authority on military manpower.

The facts speak for themselves. Clinton didn’t want to take the heat for killing the program, despite the changing international-threat environment, after evading the draft himself. With the commander in chief standing behind registration, it should come as no surprise that his national security adviser and defense secretary say the same thing.

Coronado also cites the agency’s ability to draft health-care personnel. However, that has nothing to do with ongoing registration, unless Selective Service plans on sending 18-to-25-year-olds to medical school before putting them into uniform. Perhaps he supports the old czarist lifetime draft.

Even more hilarious is the argument, voiced by Coronado, as well as Reps. Duke Cunningham, California Republican, and Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana, that registration aids recruiting. Observes Coronado, the agency “communicates with every man who registers to inform him about volunteer-service opportunities in the armed forces and civilian community.” The two congressmen charge that it would be “ironic and reckless to terminate the system at a time when the military services cannot reach their goals for recruitment and retention.”

Does anyone seriously believe that registration causes 18-year-olds to sprint down to the recruiting office? It would be better to address personnel problems directly, not use them as an excuse for bureaucratic aggrandizement.

The supporters of Selective Service conveniently ignore four points. First, draftees have to be trained as well as conscripted, meaning that it would be five to six months before any significant number reached the battlefield. Thus, at most, registration advances by a couple of weeks the production of a few extra soldiers months after the U.S. has gone to war. As a result, the program is useless for the smaller conflicts we are likely to see in the future.

Second, starting from scratch, Selective Service got the first conscript in uniform in 73 days in 1917, and just 63 days in 1940; two decades ago both the Congressional Budget Office and Selective Service System figured the latter could get the first inductee in about a month. All of these estimates — and Selective Service could do better today — meet the Pentagon’s current mobilization requirements.

Third, past experience demonstrates that crises generate volunteers. A future threat serious enough to cause Congress to impose conscription would almost certainly cause tens or hundreds of thousands of volunteers to flood the training camps. Thus, the difference between getting the first draftee on mobilization day plus 13, with peacetime registration, and mobilization day plus 30, with postmobilization registration, would be irrelevant.

Finally, Selective Service’s list ages quickly. Although most 18-year-olds sign up, most registrants don’t report their address changes. Which means a post-mobilization signup would yield a more accurate tally.

Registration didn’t make any sense when Carter reinstated it. It makes even less sense today, when Clinton wants to keep it. Congress should kill this obsolete program and agency.

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