The Field: Ranking Democrat Blocks Bipartisan Military Sexual Assault Reform


A floor vote on military sexual assault reform was ruled out once again Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

Swatted away several times now, the legislation has brought long-time supporter Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and hesitant Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed — two Democrats — to blows this week, as the ranking member jockeys for control of the effort with a bit of procedural choreography.

Here’s a look at the field as the battle drags on:

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Outlining the Act

The hard-fought effort to prevent military sexual assault and protect survivors from unjust handling of reported cases has produced no shortage of legislative support over the years, with the issue picking up steam in the public consciousness after a series of damning scandals rocked the Department of Defense.

According to a 2012 Pentagon study, roughly 26,000 U.S. servicemembers privately allege to have “experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact” in a given year. Fewer than 3,400 officially reported the instance up the chain of command, however, leaving roughly 87 percent of cases unreported and uninvestigated. Of those few cases reported, an even smaller number is referred from commander to court martial for investigation.

Since these data came to light, a number of high-profile figures have come forward as faces for the issue — and despite the pro-military platform of the GOP, no politician on the Hill has championed the cause like Gillibrand, who in 2013 introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act. Despite support from Republicans such as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the legislation failed to pass and, while tremendous awareness was raised, the effort did little to move the needle on military sexual assault, with twice as many incident reports and half the prosecutions and convictions since.

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The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, Gillibrand’s latest effort to ensure all veteran survivors are heard, seeks to push incident reports outside the servicemember’s immediate chain of command in hopes of securing an unbiased set of eyes for every allegation.

A news release from Gillibrand’s office on the reform package indicates it will:

  • Give prosecutorial discretion for serious crimes “to independent, trained, and professional military prosecutors, while leaving misdemeanors and uniquely military crimes within the chain of command.”
  • Procure DOD funding and prioritization of specific “sexual assault and domestic violence” training for staff involved in the review process.
  • Enhance current zero-tolerance sexual assault training for general servicemembers.
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  • Assess and improve on-base security measures.

Odds Are It Passes

The innocuous set of reforms seems to have been railroaded out of immediate consideration this week, however, with Gillibrand unsuccessfully taking to the floor on several occasions to make her case.

“If we brought this bill to the floor today, it would pass. We have the legislation and we have the votes. Now we just need the will to act,” the New York senator said in her first go Monday.

“I urge all of my colleagues to join me in working to pass this bill as quickly as possible.”

Of course, a substantial majority of Gillibrand’s colleagues have already joined her in the trenches. As of Thursday, more than 60 senators across the political spectrum have signed on not only to support the legislation but to outright sponsor it.

Among the allies are Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama as well as prominent Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — a veteran herself.

Opposition and Opportunity

This bipartisan support, and even the endorsement of such organizations as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has as of yet failed to grease the wheels of progress, despite the fact that filibuster is now out of the question.

Standing stalwart at the bottleneck is Reed, who paid lip service to the legislation on multiple occasions this week but ultimately suggested military survivors would be better served by reform that passed under his committee’s oversight. He went on to block Gillibrand on the floor.

The data collected by Congress and the Pentagon over a decade was just not enough. Cozying up to the Biden administration early, the Rhode Island senator was intent on including the findings of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military.

“Senator Gillibrand has long advocated for change and the Commission has largely accepted her proposal on sexual assault. With that in mind, the IRC’s recommendation to change the role of the chain of command in the prosecution of sexual assault cases will be included in the Chairman’s mark that we will soon take up,” Reed said in a Sunday statement.

“I believe that the committee must start from a base that reflects the broadest consensus possible among our members on how best to move forward,” he added on the Senate floor Monday.

That posture will likely force military sexual assault reform into a National Defense Authorization Act that will not be marked up or voted on for months.

With the Senate majority leader more than capable of altering the schedule to expedite certain efforts — a reality that Sen. Mitch McConnell often made clear when he held the position — Reed’s effort to delay and edit the legislation is hardly a death sentence. But Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer seems anything but interested in slowing his own effort to lead the charge on a Biden infrastructure bill.

Democratic leadership may not have all its ducks in a row, but it certainly has the ones it needs to keep its priorities front and center, with nothing else in the way.

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