At a press conference on Tuesday morning, a bipartisan group of male and female senators rallied behind a proposal to remove the chain of command from the adjudication process on sexual assault and other serious crimes in the military. Most surprising: the addition of senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) to the bill’s current total of 41 supporters.
The Military Justice Improvement Act was first proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), along with senators Susan Collins (D-ME) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), in mid-May at the height of the Senate’s inquiry into the military’s sexual assault crisis. The measure would remove decision-making authority from the military chain of command in cases of sexual assault and other serious crimes. Instead, trained military prosecutors would receive reports and handle such cases.
Since then, unusual battle lines have formed around the bill. The Subcommittee on Personnel, of which Gillibrand is the chair, approved the proposal as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) removed the proposal from the bill in June, however, before it moved to the full Senate. Gillibrand immediately began to shore up support for the bill as a separate amendment on the Senate floor. Her unlikely alliance of supporters at the press conference on Tuesday, in addition to Cruz and Paul, included Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Maize Hirono (D-HI).
“As I looked at the bill, Senator Gillibrand came by to talk to me about it and I thought there were one or two things that were included in this that we should exclude. She was very open to the discussion and it makes my support even stronger for this,” said Paul, explaining that some crimes, such as going AWOL or disobeying orders, were removed from the list of serious crimes in the bill. “I see no reason why conservatives shouldn’t support this,” he added.
The Pentagon’s own anonymous survey found that of the estimated 26,000 active duty members who had been sexually assaulted or harassed in 2012, two-thirds of women chose not to report. Of those, 47 percent of them cited a fear of retaliation as a primary reason for their silence. Of those who did report, 31 percent did indeed experience administrative or professional retaliation. (A female Marine officer recently said the study exaggerated the sexual assault problem in the military.) Citing those statistics of retaliation, Gillibrand said, “That’s why this kind of reform is so important. To be able to have that objective trained military prosecutor be the decision-maker. There may be less fear of retaliation, more hope of accountability, a greater belief that justice can be done.”
“Entering the committee hearing undecided, I was persuaded by Senator Gillibrand’s exceptionally passionate and able advocacy,” said Cruz, explaining that he supported the bill as he believed it would increase reporting, and consequently increase prosecution and deterrence efforts. “I think this is a common-sense approach to fixing a problem to make our military stronger, and make sure we can stand by and protect every serviceman and servicewoman,” he added. Boxer additionally pointed out during the conference that Israel, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have already made this change over the past two decades, leading to increased reporting.
Patrick Murphy, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, former congressman, and veteran of the military’s legal branch, argued in favor of Gillibrand’s bill on MSNBC on Tuesday morning, saying, “I used to be a former JAG advocate; I prosecuted these sex crimes. It is a problem, and it needs an independent military structure. That’s all we’re asking for here.”
While support for the bill has been bipartisan, so has opposition. In addition to Levin’s fateful opposition, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) also vocally opposed Gillibrand’s proposal. Cruz and Paul have already come under fire from conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who accuses the senators of joining “the anti-military caucus.”