June 09, 2020

Opening Statement As Prepared For Delivery; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; Ranking Member, Personnel Subcommittee; Committee On Armed Services; Personnel Subcommittee Markup; June 9, 2020, 2 PM

Thank you, Senator Tillis. I want to publicly acknowledge you and your staff for continuing the Subcommittee’s tradition of bipartisanship, including in this markup.  

I am pleased that the Subcommittee mark includes several provisions that I requested, including: 

  • The expansion of victims’ rights to include notice of appellate proceedings of court-martial convictions;
  • A provision I worked on with Senator Ernst to procure body armor that properly fits a female body;
  • A bill I worked on with Senator Rounds to improve the tracking of and response to child abuse on military installations; and
  • A provision to change the official DOD post-deployment health assessment form to expressly ask about exposure to burn pits. I remain deeply concerned that exposure to toxic hazards such as burn pits is significantly underreported, and that the lack of reporting has made it impossible for many of our sick veterans to get help from the VA for their service-related ailments.

The markup includes other provisions that I strongly support, including those:

  • Requiring the DOD Inspector General to audit the medical conditions of service members and their families who have lived in unhealthy military privatized housing;
  • Authorizing the Secretary of Defense to waive copays for prescriptions filled by mail-order during the pandemic so that military families don’t have to stand in line at military pharmacies;
  • Authorizing funding to support a 3% pay raise for the troops, matching the increase in the Employment Cost Index;
  • Authorizing a historic high $50 million in Supplemental Impact Aid, and $20 million for Impact Aid for Severely Disabled Military Children; and 
  • Halting a planned reduction of teachers in DOD schools through the 2024 school year.

I would also like to touch on an issue that – while not fully in the jurisdiction of this subcommittee – puts the health of our troops and their families at greater risk every day we don’t address it: the urgent need to clean up toxic PFAS contamination in the drinking water and soil around many of the bases in the United States. While the underlying bill has a few good provisions on this topic, I urge my colleagues to support the Shaheen PFAS amendment that will be considered in the full committee. 

I will say, however, that I am disappointed that many key proposals have been left out of this bill.

I am disappointed—on behalf of every survivor of sexual assault who feels unable to come forward—that this mark does not include the Safe to Report provision, which passed in both the House and Senate last year. That provision would’ve removed factors that have been found to chill survivors’ willingness to make unrestricted reports – factors that contribute to three in four sexual assaults in the ranks going unreported. We must ensure survivors can come forward without fear of collateral misconduct charges for minor offenses, such as underage drinking or violating curfew.

This mark also falls short in reforming an appellate process that sees survivors get justice only to have it ripped away. I’m disappointed for people like Adrian Perry, whose twin daughters were six years old when her husband’s superior assaulted them at Camp Lejeune. He was convicted in 2017, but last July a panel of judges overturned his conviction in a process that allows them to issue rulings based only on reading the case information. I hope to work with my colleagues to improve the Article 66 process to ensure case review focuses on legal soundness and not on creating a back-door process to overturn cases. 

Finally, as our nation reckons with the systemic racism that has plagued America since before it was a country, I was dismayed to discover that the Majority on this committee would not clear my amendment – the PANORAMA Act. This amendment is very simple. It says that two years after enactment, the Secretary, working with the four Service Academies, shall create an online portal to allow members of Congress to submit their recommendations for service academies online. And, that this online system would also collect the demographic data – gender, race and ethnicity – of those nominees.

I’ve been told that this amendment can’t be accepted because the Majority doesn’t want members to have to enter this data into a website. This makes no sense. The point is that it’s members of Congress who make recommendations to the academies, so if only 27% of the class is female, that’s because members of Congress’s recommendations were similarly low. Until we provide transparency into who we are recommending, and let the public decide if we are doing our part to promote women and people of color, we will continue to see academies made up of predominately white and male students. Approximately 43% of our armed services members are people of color, but of the 41 most senior commanders only four are men of color, and just one is a woman. The leadership of our country and Armed Forces needs to start reflecting the diversity of our people. What better place to start ensuring that our leadership reflects our country than the Military Academies where our future military leaders are trained?

This is the beginning of a long process. I look forward to working here and at the full committee to ensure that this bill is worthy of our men and women in uniform and the civilians who support them.

Thank you.