June 03, 2021

ICYMI: NYT: Old-Guard Senators Defy Changes In How Military Treats Sex Assault Cases

Piece Details How Two Senators Are Blocking A Filibuster-Proof Bipartisan Majority From Reforming The Military Justice System; “If a foreign power were to attack any of our servicemen and women overseas, there would be a stampede of senators coming to the floor and demanding action. Now I hear only the footsteps of those coming to stop us from consideration of something that would help prevent attacks on our servicemen and women by one of their own.” - Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA); Gillibrand's MJI

In case you missed it, today, the New York Times published a piece highlighting one of the last remaining hurdles to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s major push to enact the widely bipartisan Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act (MJIIPA), which would remove the decision to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command and put it in the hands of trained, independent military prosecutors, and would implement strong measures to prevent military sexual assault. Gillibrand’s push for a floor vote has been continuously objected to by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) and is opposed by Ranking Member Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK).

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

New York Times: Old-Guard Senators Defy Changes in How Military Treats Sex Assault Cases

Jennifer Steinhauer | June 3, 2021 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has won broad backing for legislation that would cut out the military chain of command in such cases. Now she faces another big hurdle. 

Over nearly a decade, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has painstakingly cobbled together a bipartisan Senate majority for legislation that would overhaul the way the military handles sexual assault and other serious crimes, a shift that many experts say is long overdue. 

Ms. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has won backing from President Biden — something President Barack Obama never openly gave — and numerous colleagues who voted against the bill the last time it came to the floor, a rare turn of events in a deeply divided body.

But now she is running up against a final hurdle: opposition from the leaders of her chamber’s Armed Services Committee, Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. Hardly a political sweater set, the two men, both Army veterans who arrived in the Senate in the mid-1990s, nonetheless often coordinate like one on military matters.

Mr. Reed, 71, and Mr. Inhofe, 86, have combined to push back against Ms. Gillibrand’s legislation and delay any move toward a swift vote, a stance that many of the bill’s backers say shows far more deference to military commanders and committee protocols than justified given the decades of failure in protecting victims in the armed forces. Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would cut out the military chain of command from decisions over prosecutions of service members for sexual assault, as well as many other serious crimes, which would be a sea change for the military justice system. 

[…] The conflict played out over several days last week on the Senate floor as Ms. Gillibrand — flanked by the two conservative Republican senators from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Mr. Blumenthal — made a highly unusual procedural attempt to get her bill a vote by the full Senate, bypassing the Armed Services Committee. Ms. Gillibrand and many of her supporters fear that by keeping the bill in the committee, where it will be included in the debate over the annual defense bill, it will end up either never receiving a vote or falling prey to a last-minute excision, as similar measures have in the past. 

“The committee has failed survivors over the last 10 years,” Ms. Gillibrand said on the floor. “And I do not think it is in their purview to make this ultimate decision.”

Ms. Ernst concurred. “If a foreign power were to attack any of our servicemen and women overseas, there would be a stampede of senators coming to the floor and demanding action,” she said. “Now I hear only the footsteps of those coming to stop us from consideration of something that would help prevent attacks on our servicemen and women by one of their own.” 

Mr. Reed, balking at a remarkable rebuke from a committee member of his own party, moved with Mr. Inhofe to stop senators from trying to advance the bill outside of the committee, where it can be amended to his liking. 

[…] “His heart is in the right place,” Mr. Blumenthal said of Mr. Reed. But by narrowing the scope of the legislation, he said, “We’ll be right back to baby steps that failed to address the real problem.”

Ms. Gillibrand was more blunt. “They are both against my bill, and they would like to kill it in committee,” she said in an interview on Friday. “They have such a deep respect for the chain of command that they are often overly deferential to it.” 

If it could get to the Senate floor, Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would easily clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold that stymies many other pieces of legislation. She has 65 other senators who have signed on — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders — and at least five more have pledged support.

But Mr. Inhofe remains opposed to removing the military’s chain of command from the prosecutions of service members for sexual assaults. 

[…] Many senators who opposed Ms. Gillibrand’s bill in 2014 have changed their minds since then, citing the lack of progress in addressing sexual assault and harassment in the military, underscored by a case last year in which an Army specialist was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood in Texas, according to law enforcement officials. Her family and some investigators said she had been sexually harassed at the base.

[…] No one actually believed that Ms. Gillibrand and her allies would succeed in getting a fast vote for her bill. Her moves on the floor were clearly intended to draw attention to Mr. Reed’s and Mr. Inhofe’s objections. 

However, while Mr. Reed favors debating the legislation as part of the annual defense policy bill, where even many of its supporters agree it would most naturally fit, Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. Ernst have reasons to be wary of the process. They have looked for another route, like putting it on the Senate floor as a stand-alone measure without a committee vote, which happens occasionally.

A far smaller measure — a pilot program for the service academies that would have mirrored Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts — was stripped out of the bill last year before a final vote. In 2019, another measure that would have protected sexual assault survivors from being charged with so-called collateral crimes was gutted in the same way. 

[…] Mr. Grassley, who has been a committee chairman himself many times over his decades in the Senate, is among those bucking Mr. Reed and Mr. Inhofe. 

“We have been waiting almost a decade,” he said. “There is no need to wait any longer. I urge my colleagues to show unanimous support for protecting our men and women in military and allow this bill to pass.”