Female Senators Challenging Pentagon on Sex Assault Rules
By Laura Litvan – Jun 12, 2013 12:01 AM ET
Female senators pushing legislation to curb sexual assaults in the armed forces must overcome opposition from top military officials and their own leadership to change the way cases are investigated and prosecuted.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, left, and U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, talk on the stairs before a Senate policy luncheon. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee are joining Pentagon officials in rejecting a proposal to investigate sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.
While an Armed Services subcommittee approved that change in the handling of sexual-assault cases yesterday as part of a broader defense measure, the proposal is set to be defeated by the full panel as soon as today.
“My concern is a bit more in the full committee,” said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California. “And then we’ll have a knock-down, drag-out fight on the Senate floor, I can tell you that.”
The proposal restricting commanders’ prosecution authority has emerged as the central issue in a debate sparked by the results of a Defense Department survey estimating 26,000 cases of sexual assaults last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has proposed a measure to prevent convicted sex offenders from enlisting or being commissioned in the military. Photographer: Rafael Suanes/MCT via Getty Images
With a record 20 women serving in the Senate, a bipartisan group has joined together to push for changes, setting up a showdown with the male-dominated Pentagon.
The group is finding resistance even from some allies. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who supports other changes, opposes an independent prosecutor in sexual assault cases.
“Only the chain of command can establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses,” he said at a June 4 panel hearing.
At that hearing, military officers including Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the proposal by senators led by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. He said military discipline would be hurt if commanding officers didn’t handle the cases.
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, speaks while U.S. military leaders testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding sexual assaults in the military. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Gillibrand reacted sharply.
“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force,” she told the officers. “Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”
Whether Gillibrand and the other female senators can surmount the Pentagon’s opposition, women in both parties have little to lose by pressing this legislation, said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.
“I don’t see how there’s a downside for them at all politically,” Kay said. “These well-informed experts who happen to be women are forcing the military to think differently about these issues.”
The question is how far Congress is willing to go.
The chain-of-command measure has the most pushback from the Pentagon. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, back proposals that would provide military lawyers throughout the legal process to alleged victims of sexual assault and criminalize sexual relationships between basic training instructors and students.
Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has offered a measure to prevent convicted sex offenders from enlisting or being commissioned in the military. With Republican Susan Collinsof Maine, she proposes preventing military officials from dismissing a court-martial conviction for sexual assault.
Some male lawmakers have joined in the effort. Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, is co-sponsoring legislation with Collins and Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, barring commanders from overturning court-martial convictions and requiring a minimum penalty of dishonorable discharge for those found guilty of sexual assault.
Blunt said he’s determined to see some change occur this year, although he can’t predict what law will emerge.
“Clearly the attitude at the top levels in the military needs to change in a way that gets them focused on addressing this problem,” Blunt said. “Business as usual isn’t good enough.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, acknowledged the Pentagon’s resistance could force the toughest proposals off the table.
“I think it probably makes it harder to get some of the changes done, but I think the effort to try to get them done won’t change,” she said.
Collins said she’s not so sure. She sees parallels with legislation overturning the military’s ’’don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy banning openly gay personnel from serving. While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was supportive, the chiefs of all the military services opposed the measure.
It passed in December 2010 and has become accepted, Collins said. The military is too resistant to change to make big legal and cultural policy changes on its own, she said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we need to have legislative changes,’ Collins said. ‘‘There have been legitimate issues that have been raised over which bill is the best approach, but we can’t just leave this up to the military. The military has shown, sadly, that it is incapable of solving this problem or even making significant process.”
The debate has taken on a partisan edge in the past week.
At the June 4 panel hearing Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, cited the “hormone level” among young recruits as a contributing factor in the surge in assaults.
Democrats pounced. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, looking to the 2014 congressional elections, said Chambliss’s remark shows that a “Republican war on women” continues, and vowed to push harder for measures preventing military sexual assaults.
That’s a slogan the Democrats used in 2012, when they gained a 55-seat Senate majority. Of the seven women on the Senate Armed Services committee, two Democrats – Kay Hagan ofNorth Carolina and Shaheen of New Hampshire — are up for re-election in 2014.
House lawmakers say they want to take some action as well. House Speaker John Boehner, anOhio Republican, called the increase in military sexual assaults a “national disgrace” and said he expects the House to take up changes to military law as part of debate on an annual defense bill.
Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who is leading efforts in the House, lashed out against the military’s top brass on June 9 on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“They‘re enablers because this has been a problem for 25 years and for 25 years they‘ve trotted up to Capitol Hill, they sat in committee hearings and they said all the right things, zero tolerance,’’ Speier said. ‘‘But then the scandals keep happening.’’
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at email@example.com