Time is running out for Congress to pass reforms to the military justice system’s sexual assault policy. Though pressure has been building for months as new reports detailing the extent of sexual assault in the military spurred calls for change, the reform measures may need to wait another year unless the Senate reaches a breakthrough soon.
Two competing proposals are on the table. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is pushing to remove commander’s authority to decide whether or not to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault, but keeps the judicial process within the military system. Meanwhile, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) had proposed a reform that would keep prosecution authority within the military chain of command but expands protections for servicemembers who report sexual assault and prohibits the “good soldier” defense for those accused of crimes, among other provisions.
Both Senators’ proposals are amendments attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has already been blocked once in the Senate, and have been stalled due to other ongoing fights over the NDAA.
If the Senators can’t get their amendments added to the NDAA, their best chance, they can still try to bring their bills for a Senate vote separate from the NDAA.
The senators first introduced their respective bills earlier this year after the Pentagon released statistics showing that 26,000 service members reported being victims of sexual assault in 2012, spurring a debate on how effective the military chain of command was in prosecuting perpetrators of assaults and protecting victims.
Gillibrand’s more aggressive bill has gained traction with the help of servicewomen’s advocate groups. Currently, 53 Senators publicly support the New York senator’s amendment.
McClaskill has used her background as a former prosecutor who cousel sexual assault victims in Kansas City to rally the support of at least two dozen senators in recent weeks. McClaskill spokesperson Drew Pusateri projects that the Missouri senator’s amendment will receive “near unanimous” support if voted on. Proposals from McClaskill’s bill, including removing the commander’s authority to overturn jury convictions, have already been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee and included in the 2014 NDAA.
With just a few weeks left in December, House and Senate members will only be in Washington simultaneously for 5 days before the year ends. Congressmen also face a host of other issues that may push military reform further down the agenda, such as budget agreement for the new year and a two-year overdue farm bill.
Meanwhile, the two senators project opposing views on their stalled amendments.
“The outlook for additional amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act doesn’t look promising,” McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri said.
However, the Gillibrand camp remains optimistic.
“We are confident that we will get a vote this year,” said Gillibrand spokesperson Glen Caplin.
Meanwhile advocacy groups like the Service Women’s Action Network that co-wrote the Gillibrand bill and have been mounting aggressive campaigns on the issue of sexual assault in the military are waiting anxiously for the Senate to make its move.
“It’s a very quick and fluid environment in Washington right now,” said SWAN executive director and former Marine Corps captain Anu Bhagwati. “So we’re just waiting for them to act in any which way.”
If the amendments do not come to a vote by the holiday recess, Senator Gillibrand could re-introduce her bill as a standalone straight to the floor because she filed her amendment under a procedure called Rule 14. Senator McClaskill also plans to reintroduce a standalone bill called the Victim Prevention Act that combines her proposed NDAA amendment and provisions that have already been approved by the Senate Committee on Armed Services for the NDAA 2014.