House lawmakers introduce bill to overhaul military justice system

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday to remove the decision to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command, the latest step in a march toward a major change to the military justice system.

Led by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act mirrors language in a bipartisan Senate bill championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes away from military commanders and give it to independent military prosecutors.

“We’re here today for the service members who have spoken out or who have suffered in silence because the message and culture in the military has been clear: shut up, suck it up and don’t rock the boat,” Speier said at a news conference Wednesday morning introducing the legislation.

The House measure is named after Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was sexually harassed by a supervisor and killed last year, allegedly by another soldier at Fort Hood. Her death sparked the #IAmVanessaGuillen movement of female service members telling their stories of sexual assault and harassment and injected momentum into the fight for military justice reform.

The introduction of the House bill comes after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday evening threw his support behind removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command, becoming the first Pentagon chief to take that position.

But a fight over broadly to reform the military justice system is heating up.

In his statement, Austin said the Biden administration will “work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.”

The Senate and House bills, however, would go further; in addition to sex crimes, the bills would affect other felony-level crimes such as murder.

In letters released Tuesday by an opponent of the bills, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned against such a sweeping overhaul of the military justice system.

Austin has not specifically weighed in on the legislation, but has stressed any changes should be “scoped to the problem.”

At Wednesday’s news conference, Gillibrand acknowledged Austin’s Tuesday statement as “historic” and a “huge monumental step forward.” Still, she emphasized that it is Congress’s prerogative to go further.

“We wrote the entire structure of how military justice is to be handled. So we are responsible for oversight and accountability over the executive branch, and specifically the armed services,” she said.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing later Wednesday, Speier thanked Austin for “creating a profound transformation in the military as we address sexual assault and sexual harassment,” but did not ask about the broader reforms in her bill.

Gillibrand has tried several times to bring her bill, which has more than 60 co-sponsors, up for a vote in the Senate. It has been blocked by Inhofe or Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who supports the narrower change to the military justice system just for sex crimes but argues the issue would be best handled in the annual defense policy bill rather than as a stand-alone bill.

The timeline for the House bill is unclear, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged at Wednesday’s news conference that “we will bring this bill to the floor. It will pass in the House.”

Tags chain of command Jack Reed Jackie Speier Kirsten Gillibrand Lloyd Austin Mike Turner Nancy Pelosi sexual assaults

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