For decades, Congress has depended on the executive branch to manage the military's social policies, largely limiting its Pentagon deliberations to strategy and spending.
But that hands-off approach may be waning, experts say. In a shift that reflects the growing importance of social issues in the nation's political arena, GOP lawmakers now working to reconcile different House and Senate versions of the fiscal 1997 Pentagon spending plan are debating gay rights and abortion rather than military-spending levels.
The social battles are symptomatic of the ideological divide between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party and a sign of increased intrusions by Congress in matters that have traditionally been managed internally by the uniformed hierarchy or by its executive branch superiors.
"There has always been congressional concern with social issues in the military, but for the most part the Congress has let the executive branch take the lead," says David Segal, co-director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland in College Park.
"People on the defense committees on Capitol Hill used to be preoccupied with the cold war," he says. "With the racial integration problems of the early 1970s and the gender-integration problems of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Congress told the military to manage them and then report back.
"You are [now] talking about the Congress trying to micromanage the military" on social questions, Professor Segal says.
That micromanagement is not driven by a desire to improve the quality of the corps as much as by politics, says John Williams, a political scientist at Chicago's Loyala University who studies relations between the military and society. "They are using the military to further a social agenda," he argues. "It is not restricted to the Republicans. President Clinton tried to do this with his gays in the military policy.
"The military as an institution is a creature of the rest of the government as it must be. So, it is tempting to use it to further agendas that are not necessarily related to national security," Professor Williams says.
In passing its version of the fiscal 1997 Pentagon spending plan, the House approved a proposal to set down as law the strict administrative ban on homosexuals in the military that Clinton replaced in 1993 with his "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. It would also reinstate a policy of asking new recruits their sexual orientations.
The House also approved a measure that would require the armed services to discharge within two months of diagnosis any service member found to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The prohibition on gays, the HIV provision, and a ban on pornographic magazines on military bases were sponsored by Republican Rep. Robert Dornan, the fiery social conservative and GOP presidential candidate from California who leads the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel. His measures won enthusiastic support from right-wing GOP freshmen.
None of the measures were included in the Senate version of the spending plan. In fact, in a reflection of an ideological split with the House, the Senate added an amendment to overturn part of the current defense authorization act that bans privately funded abortions at US military hospitals overseas. The House bill would renew the abortion-restricting measure.
It remains to be seen whether the House proposals will survive what are expected to be contentious deliberations among Republican members of the House-Senate conference committee.
Earlier this year, Representative Dornan succeeded in attaching his HIV legislation to the fiscal 1996 defense authorization act. The legislation triggered an outcry from prominent personalities, including basketball star Magic Johnson, senior military commanders, and the more than 1,000 service personnel infected with HIV, who in addition to discharges, faced termination of their medical benefits. Many said they contacted the virus through blood transfusions.
Although he opposed the HIV measure, Clinton signed the defense act into law. He then threw his weight behind a Senate bill that rescinded the HIV provision. It treats personnel with HIV the same as those with other chronic diseases, allowing them to remain on duty in the US as long as they can do their jobs.
Dornan and supporters may have more success with the proposal to reinstate the ban on gays in the military.
Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which maintains the ban but doesn't allow military commanders to question personnel about their sexual orientation, is unpopular with many, even though gay-rights activists say homosexuals and lesbians are being discharged from the armed forces more than under the old policy.
Daniel Zingale of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization, says Dornan's proposals have no military significance. Instead, he sees them as part of a broader strategy designed to gain votes for GOP conservatives in the November elections.