Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform

Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform
© Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Lobbying world Democrats optimistic as social spending bill heads to Senate MORE (D-N.Y.) on Thursday unveiled her latest attempt to curtail sexual assault in the military, proposing a bill that would remove decisions about whether to prosecute such cases from the hands of military commanders.

“Sexual assault in the military is an epidemic, it has been for a very long time,” Gillibrand said alongside several senators from both parties at a news conference.

“We owe it to our service members to do more to prevent these crimes and to properly prosecute them when they occur.”

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Gillibrand for eight years has attempted to push a bill that would remove military commanders from deciding on sexual assault cases. She argues having commanders involved in the decision has prevented service members from coming forward out of fear of retaliation and emboldened attackers, as those who commit such crimes rarely face punishment.

The Pentagon and Gillibrand's fellow lawmakers for years have pushed back on the proposal, claiming taking such decisions out of the commanders' hands would create a breakdown in unit cohesion.

But her latest legislation, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act  which would require specially trained military prosecutors, not commanders, to decide whether to try assault crimes in the military  has gained a level of support her past efforts have failed to reach.

“This new coalition will make the difference of passing this legislation, I am certain of it,” Gillibrand said while flanked by Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Iowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (R-Iowa), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstBiden picks former Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield to Iowa's USDA post Biden has just 33 percent approval rating in Iowa poll Overnight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' MORE (R-Iowa), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Sununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire Three female senators call NYT coverage of Sinema's clothes 'sexist' MORE (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark KellyMark KellyFive Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Biden's pick for Arizona's US Attorney confirmed by Senate Cook Political Report shifts three Senate races toward Republicans MORE (D-Ariz.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Advocates see pilot program to address inequalities from highways as crucial first step Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' MORE (R-Texas).  

Ernst, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel and sexual assault survivor who previously opposed taking the decision out of the chain of command, now backs the bill after she worked with Gillibrand to add several prevention efforts to it, including better training for commanders and increased physical security measures.

“It has been an evolution, and I’ve made it very clear that I have been very torn about this in the past,” Ernst said Thursday of her decision to support the bill.

“I said I would always keep an open mind and if we didn’t see things change then perhaps it would be time to make those changes. And so I have kept an open mind.”

Gillibrand, who has approached Ernst for years to gain her support, said the backing from the sole female Republican senator who has seen combat was “extremely meaningful.”

Ernst’s aid is also likely to attract other lawmakers who voted against a similar bill from Gillibrand in 2014.

Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Senate advances defense bill after delay Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Senators to take up defense bill Wednesday MORE (D-Va.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFive Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US mulls Afghan evacuees' future MORE (D-Va.), Angus KingAngus KingAmazon, Facebook, other large firms would pay more under proposed minimum tax, Warren's office says Senators look to defense bill to move cybersecurity measures Energy information chief blames market for high fuel prices MORE (I-Maine) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterFive Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee Dark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 Biden to speak on economy Tuesday, with Fed pick imminent MORE (D-Mont.) previously opposed the measure but now support the new legislation.

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“You’re seeing people giving this fair consideration,” Gillibrand said of the shift. 

The bill also is likely to be bolstered by a change in the military while under the purview of Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Drones are a strategic liability for US Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey MORE, who has pledged to prioritize combating sexual assault and harassment in the services and earlier this year appointed an independent panel to look at the issue. 

That panel advised Austin to go in a similar direction as Gillibrand’s bill and designate independent judge advocates, who would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor, to decide whether to charge someone in certain cases of special victims crimes including sexual assault, sexual harassment and possibly certain hate crimes.

The panel also advised that sexual harassment claims be looked into by those outside the chain of command. Should such a charge be found true, the military should immediately begin the process of discharging the perpetrator from the force while other legal proceedings play out. 

Austin is currently reviewing the recommendations and has indicated he is open to such changes, but Congress must pass legislation to change military law.

“At some point, senators decide they have to do their jobs as overseers of the executive branch. ... This is now our job because it is necessary to create a better, more professional system where justice is possible,” Gillibrand said.