Originally published on Politico Pro by Connor O'Brien.
Former Rep. Joe Heck has been entrusted to lead a lengthy review into whether the U.S. still needs a military draft.
The three-term Nevada Republican, who chaired the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, was named chairman a year ago of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.
The 11-member panel — tasked with recommending moves to increase participation in military and public service — was created by Congress amid a heated debate over whether women should be required to register for the Selective Service System. But the commissioners first need to tackle whether a military draft, which hasn't been used since the Vietnam War, is still needed.
"The bigger question that we want to answer first is whether or not we even need the Selective Service System," Heck said in an interview. "We have to answer that first before we determine whether or not women should have to register."
More broadly, the commission is examining how to boost national service, including participation in service programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or Teach for America as well as public service that includes government service and holding public office.
"How do we increase the ethos or propensity to serve across all service lines — military, national, public service?" Heck said, describing the commission's aim. "Ultimately, our vision for the commission is that every American is inspired to serve."
Over the past year, the panel's members have crisscrossed the country and taken part in public meetings and listening sessions to learn more about barriers to service and potential solutions. The panel plans to issue an interim report laying out those issues and potential recommendations in January, with a final report to follow in March 2020.
A physician and Army Reserve brigadier general, Heck left the House after an unsuccessful Nevada Senate bid in 2016 against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.
He joined RedRock Strategies in 2017 as president of its government relations practice and registered as a lobbyist in March. His clients include the American Osteopathic Association, Spectrum Pharmaceuticals and defense contractor TRAX International.
POLITICO interviewed Heck by phone to get an update on the commission's work and on what he's heard so far.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about the panel's mission, the issues you're looking at and what you're hearing in the field so far.
The commission was created by the fiscal year '17 NDAA. And it began in the House really with the question of should women have to register for the Selective Service System. ... When it went into conference over on the Senate side ... they expanded the scope.
What we're looking at primarily are two specific questions on the military side ... Do we still need a selective service system? And if we do, should it exist as it is currently or should it be changed to include whether or not women should have to register?
The second set of questions, then, is how do we increase the ethos or propensity to serve across all service lines — military, national, public service?
Ultimately, our vision for the commission is that every American is inspired to serve. ... That's premise that we are working under.
For the first year, we've kind traveled the country. ... We've done several public meetings, at least one in each census district. ... What we normally do in those engagements is first we'll have meetings with business people, local service organizations.
Some of the venues that we've gone to have been specifically military venues to talk to current military members just as listening sessions. ... Normally the way the public meeting goes is I do Commission 101, telling them what we're about.
We usually have a panel discussion with local experts on service issues and then we open it up for public comment. So we've been compiling all of that information. In addition, we solicit public comment through the Federal Register. ... And then public comment via our website or social media platforms.
All of that is being collated by our research department to kind of get a state of play of where we are today as far as service is concerned. What are the issues that have been identified to us on the public listening tour? And what are some of the potential solutions?
Hopefully that will coalesce in our interim report, which we are planning to release January of . The plan then is to take that interim report around and actually do formal published hearings on the report and potential recommendations. And, ultimately, we will issue a final report with our final recommendations tentatively scheduled for March 2020.
Are there any prevalent themes that come up in these hearings about military and public service?
There are. And it's interesting because no matter what venue ... there are some consistent themes. One is that everyone we've talked to has seen the value in service to strengthen American democracy.
Also what we've identified is that many people who want to serve don't know what their service options are. ... You can't do what you can't see, right. They don't know about it, they can't volunteer ... or they can't pursue it as a service vocation. So, there are obstacles that we've identified that hopefully we'll be able to develop recommendations on how to break down those barriers to service.
We see that there's an overwhelming desire for Americans to serve in some capacity, to be a part of the fabric of American society. We also hear that there are significant obstacles, i.e. awareness, cost ... barriers to enlistment.
It's been heartening that there are so many folks who do want to serve. We've got to figure out a way to provide options for them.
National service, for us, means serving in a service program — like Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, City Year, YouthBuild, Teach for America — but also includes programs that are local. ... Whether it's the local food bank or the senior center or something along those lines.
Public service is defined as employment in state, local, tribal or federal positions or running for elected office.
This started with the battle over whether women should be required to register for Selective Service. Do you expect the final the final report will recommend requiring women to register with selective Service or something similar?
The bigger question that we want to answer first is whether or not we even need the Selective Service System because that was also one of the questions. ... Or does the Selective Service System itself need to be morphed into something that's more universal, like a Serve America system, where you can register for any ... service, whether it's military, national, public. ... We have to answer that first before we determine whether or not women should have to register.
The final report will address those two questions. We will say, yes or no, we need the Selective Service System and, yes or no, we recommend women register.
That must be a tough question, since you're grappling with a draft that hasn't been used since Vietnam, but also whether you want that mechanism just in case you need military manpower.
That's correct. So, that's the discussions that we've had with DoD on how they view the Selective Service System. We've also looked at potential alternative databases, where individuals can be identified without having to maintain the Selective Service registration system.
One small part of the Selective Service System is the actual registration of a male when he turns 18. The other piece of it is the database that's warehoused in the Chicago area of all the data, the local and regional boards, the volunteers that would be called up to actually rank or review everyone should they be drafted.
That's about a ... $26 million annual budget ... to kind of keep it in the standby. So when you look at the cost of the standby ... whether or not there's any plan for it to be used in the future based on current threats, whether or not ... the system can actually meet its deadlines to provide its first number of draftees ... within a given period of time, there are a lot of questions that need to be sorted through to determine whether or not the system as it currently exists is still necessary, or if it needs to be changed.
As a HASC member, you supported an amendment to the NDAA to require women to register for the draft. Do you still feel that way?
My personal opinion — and this is in no way reflects the disposition of the commission — is that, yes, if we maintain a Selective Service System as it currently is, then women should register.
A lot of attention has been focused on the military service portion, and that's more clearly defined. What seems less clear is the national and public service portion of your work. Are you finding that's a more difficult issue to get at than military service?
There are certainly different challenges with addressing the national-public service side of the equation — one, because it is much broader.
We had to come up with what is the definition of service. No matter where you look or who you read, there are different definitions. And if we're going to make recommendations, we as a commission had to agree on what we were going to use as our basis for a definition of what counts as service.
Then ... there are the second and third-order effects. ... A lot of the things that we may recommend we also have to do within the context of what's fiscally possible. ... There's research there that shows that for every dollar invested in a service program you may wind up reaping [four] dollars as a return on investment in the service. So we have to make sure that when we look at the recommendations that we may proffer about national service or public service that we take that into account as well.
So when you issue an interim report in January, should we have a decent idea of where you're headed?
The way we're planning the interim report is kind of three broad sections: The state of play, what we've heard and what are some the potential solutions. The interim report will not necessarily indicate where the commission is leaning, but will list out solutions because then we want to take that through the hearing process and receive formal input on what some of the solutions may be.
We don't want to pre-select or predispose a solution or recommendation until we have the opportunity to get public input.
Is there anything else people should know about the commission's work?
The most important thing is that the vision of the commission is that every American will be inspired and eager to serve in order to strengthen American democracy. That's ultimately how we are looking at this.
No matter how you serve, the most important thing is to serve. And we hope through our report and recommendations that we will create a universal expectation of service, so that in a generation or two, it would be the person who doesn't serve is in the minority and the people who do serve make up the majority.