WASHINGTON DC (Mon-itoring Desk): Congressional efforts to change how the military handles sexual assault and other serious crimes reached a critical turning point this week after years of resistance from Pentagon officials and lawmakers.
Several bills put forward in the House and Senate now have the support of lawmakers who once sidelined such efforts, raising hopes among advocates that action will finally be taken to address the issue.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) added to the renewed optimism for action on Friday when he announced he would lead a House push to revamp how military sexual assault claims are handled.
Turner, a senior House Armed Services Committee member, said he would introduce legislation with a Democratic colleague to change who decides whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other serious crimes, taking it out of the hands of military commanders and giving it to specially trained military prosecutors.
That legislation will be a companion to the bipartisan Senate bill known as the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act (MJIIPA), which was co-sponsored by 61 Republican and Democratic senators as of Thursday.
That means the bill can survive a filibuster in the Senate, which has a rule that legislation must be supported by at least 60 senators in order to move forward.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has for years tried to remove commanders from the process of deciding whether to send sexual assault cases to trial, but was repeatedly blocked by other lawmakers.
Their objections, which mirrored that of Pentagon officials, was that such alterations would cause a breakdown in unit cohesion.
Turner, who is also a co-chair of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Caucus, previously opposed several past versions of the legislation.
But his support for this particular iteration marks a major win for Gillibrand’s nearly decade-long effort, as his backing is likely to compel other House Republicans to help push the bill over the finish line and into law.
A vote on the measure will be held “hopefully soon,” Gillibrand said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“We now have 61 bipartisan co-sponsors, we probably have over 70 supporters of the bill. We hope that we can get a floor vote, up or down, so that we can start the process of making this law,” she said alongside Turner.
Reports of sexual assault within the military have steadily increased since 2006 and even rose last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, when global troop movements and interactions were limited due to the health crisis. Numerous Pentagon programs and efforts to reduce such cases have come up short.
That failure was on display on Thursday when the Defense Department released its annual report on sexual assault in the military. The yearly survey found that service members reported 6,290 incidents of sexual assault while on service in fiscal year 2020, up by 1 percent compared to fiscal 2019.
Lawmakers are pressing ahead on proposed changes with the backing of the Biden administration, which has has pledged to “end the scourge of sexual assault” in the ranks.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley — who recently dropped his objection to prosecuting sexual assaults outside the military’s chain of command — said internal surveys revealed roughly 20,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in the U.S. military last year.
“That’s huge, that’s significant. And that number hasn’t significantly been reduced over time. So we need to take a hard look. … These are blue on blue assaults, it cannot stand, it has to be resolved, so yes my mind is very open to it,” Milley said of the proposed change earlier this month.
Milley’s new stance, as well as added support from both sides of the aisle, comes after an independent Pentagon panel established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this year recommended that independent military prosecutors — and not commanding officers — decide on sexual assault cases.
Austin, who has pledged to prioritize combating sexual assault and harassment in the services, has so far stayed quiet on whether he will ultimately implement such changes. He maintains that he is reviewing the recommendations and is awaiting input from top military leaders, but said he has an open mind on the matter.
Gillibrand on Friday pushed back on criticisms that her bill, should it become law, would undermine discipline in the military services.
“We’ve diligently pursued so many other forms over the last eight years, over 200, in fact. And it’s not dented the problem,” Gillibrand said. “We still have 20,000 estimated sexual assaults a year, we have less cases going to trial and less cases ending in conviction, in terms of our rates of prosecution. It’s not getting better.”
Beyond Gillibrand and Turner’s endeavor, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on Thursday also reintroduced a similar bill in the House, known as the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act. The legislation is named in honor of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood, Texas in April 2020 after she told her family she was being sexually harassed.
That bill, which also would take the decision on sexual assault and harassment charges from commanders, differs slightly from Gillibrand’s but is backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Armed Service Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
Speier told reporters on Thursday that she and Gillibrand are “working closely together” on the issue.