WITH hundreds of billions in US budget cutting at stake, an item costing $20 million per year may sound like petty cash. But the subject is not petty. It's the military draft.
Dropping the draft bureaucracy would more than pay for retaining the much more useful Office of Technology Assessment (see above).
No American has been conscripted since 1972. That leaves the skeleton organization funded by that $20 million mainly engaged in recording names and addresses for some 5,000 young men who turn 18 every day. If no draft is needed for the next 23 years, that $20 million figure, inflation and imputed interest added, totals nearly $1 billion. That's why, with some hesitation, we favor the move to eliminate the shadow structure that has had no role since Vietnam.
Why hesitation? Because in times of national emergency, conscription - for all its problems of whom to take and whom to defer - is the fairest way for a democracy to prepare its defenses.
If so, why not be cautious and keep the machinery for a draft alive? Ironically, President Clinton, noted draft deferee, favors that course. As in the matter of restoring relations with Vietnam, he may find it hard, politically, to kill the draft.
Some GOP leaders join him. Their chief argument is that a dismantled agency takes too long to restore in an emergency. The draft systems of 1917 and 1940 furnish proof that conscription can be quickly, if sometimes messily, turned on.
One final argument deserves attention: that ending even a phantom draft might be seen as one more symbol of American isolationism. Nonsense. That's a problem that can be remedied only by a more coherent and assertive foreign policy.