Press Release

ICYMI: NY Times Editorial: The Two Men Blocking Military Sexual Assault Reform

Jun 21, 2021

In case you missed it, this weekend, the New York Times published an editorial highlighting the urgent need to pass the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, while also criticizing ongoing obstruction. The Editorial Board noted that the bill has “a supermajority of U.S. senators,” and opined that delay, dilution or derailment of the bill would be a “disservice to the country.”

Over the past few weeks, Senator Gillibrand has called for unanimous consent to open debate on the bill eleven times, and Senators Reed (D-RI) and Inhofe (R-OK), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have blocked her each time. Today, she will again take to the floor to call for unanimous consent. 

Full of text of the editorial can be found here and key excerpts below:

Opinion: The Two Men Blocking Military Sexual Assault Reform

New York Times Editorial Board

June 19, 2021

These days, it is tough to get a supermajority of U.S. senators to agree on the color of the sky, much less a politically delicate piece of legislation. Yet this is precisely what is happening with the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, a bill championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat, that would overhaul how the armed services handle accusations of rape, sexual assault and other serious crimes. In addition to beefing up training and prevention, the proposal would shift the decision to prosecute many felonies “from the chain of command to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors.”

The military’s current handling of sexual assault cases ill serves everyone involved. For example, an independent 2020 review found that more than 30 percent of charges of penetrative sexual offense shouldn’t have been brought to trial because of insufficient evidence. That has the effect of undermining confidence in the military justice system and being unfair to both the accused and the victims. Independent prosecutors could help remedy this problem. If there’s more confidence in the justice system, it’s more likely that victims will come forward and crimes will be successfully adjudicated.

[…] This coalition is a tribute to Ms. Gillibrand’s doggedness, but it also reflects a growing frustration in Congress and beyond with the military’s persistent failure to get a handle on the problem, despite throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into prevention efforts and support systems for victims in recent years. You know a situation needs urgent attention when Senators Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Joni Ernst, Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley all rally around the same bill. Even the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, whose partisan obstructionism is the stuff of legend, is on board.

[…] Except. The bill may not receive a proper vote. It is currently sitting in the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, is impeding its progress — with an assist from the ranking Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. For years, these two old bulls, both Army veterans, opposed disrupting the chain of command in such cases, in alignment with the military’s objections. Mr. Inhofe still does. Mr. Reed now says that he supports shaking up the way sexual assault is handled — but that he nonetheless opposes Ms. Gillibrand’s bill because it applies to other felonies as well. Insisting the proposal needs more debate, the chairman says he will fold it into negotiations over the giant military authorization bill that lawmakers must tackle later this year.

In the Senate, process is often the murder weapon of choice. Reform advocates are accusing Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe of being too deferential to the military and trying to delay and dilute the bill, if not derail it altogether.

“They are both against my bill, and they would like to kill it in committee,” Ms. Gillibrand told The Times recently.

If this happens, it will be a disservice to the country.

No one seriously disputes that the U.S. military has a sexual assault problem. According to the Defense Department’s 2018 report on the subject, in fiscal year 2018, an estimated 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped, including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. Only a tiny fraction of reported cases result in a conviction. That leads to lower confidence in the military justice system for the all-volunteer force. Many incidents go unreported altogether, which is unsurprising considering that “64 percent of women who reported a sexual assault face retaliation,” according to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.

The military has long argued that removing prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command would undermine commanders’ authority and harm the services. But that claim doesn’t withstand much serious scrutiny. Moreover, defense officials have repeatedly pledged to deal with the problem, but their efforts thus far have not curbed it.

[…] While sexual assault is the focus of the reform push, supporters of Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal say that reforming the military justice system more broadly will make it fairer and less prone to bias — and help address existing racial disparities in prosecutions and convictions. They warn that singling out sexual assault would establish a “pink court,” effectively creating a two-tiered justice system and further stigmatizing victims.

Advocates also point out that many U.S. allies, including Israel, Britain and Canada, have already made similar changes to their military justice systems.

Ms. Gillibrand is happy to have a floor debate over the merits of the bill, maybe even fights over amendments. But she is determined not to let the plan get delayed and then chewed up in the fight over the sprawling National Defense Authorization Act — as has happened in the past.

In recent days, she has been trying to use a maneuver that would bring the bill directly to the Senate floor. Each day the chamber is in session, she asks for unanimous consent to open debate. Each day that she asks, Mr. Reed, backed by Mr. Inhofe, objects. Ms. Gillibrand plans to continue her daily requests indefinitely.

Supporters of the bill are hoping that the issue will get a new wind when a bipartisan coalition in the House introduces a related bill, which is expected in the coming week. Reform-minded lawmakers and staff members have been working to woo members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, which could give the issue even more kick.

There has been much debate of late over whether the filibuster makes it too hard to enact meaningful legislation. Ms. Gillibrand’s bill has more than enough support to clear that hurdle and take a much needed step forward to address an urgent, longstanding crisis. If only it is given a fighting chance.