Senate Stacks Deck Against Reformers in Military Sexual Assaults Crisis

Supporters outnumbered 18-2 at hearing; no victims testify.

​House Republicans set off a firestorm last year when they held a hearing on contraception without inviting any women.  

​Get ready for round two. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee takes up the issue of sexual assaults in the military at a hearing Tuesday -- a hearing where witnesses opposed to reform will outnumber supporters 18-2 and not a single sexual assault victim will testify.  

The session, billed as a hearing to review potential legislative reforms, could instead see the Pentagon’s staunchest defenders deal a brutal blow to the measures that would go farthest to protect victims. Both committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the panel’s former ranking member, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they hope to include a package of provisions to address sexual assault in the National Defense Authorization Act, although neither has said what kind of reforms he might support.

But with the bulk of witnesses representing the military, whose officers are unsurprisingly adverse to bills that strip them of authority over abuse cases, even reform supporters have little hope for legislation that goes beyond Defense Department recommendations.

“If you just look at the number of votes that the Department of Defense has—the number of people they are pushing into that room and onto that panel against two advocates, they are going to win. Congress is going to cave,” said Paula Coughlin, the Tailhook sexual-assault scandal whistle-blower, who serves on the advisory board of Protect Our Defenders, one of the two victim-advocacy groups testifying.

This despite repeated headlines about the problem plaguing the armed services. In two recent high-profile cases, leaders tasked with responding to and preventing sexual assault were themselves accused of perpetrating such crimes. Meanwhile, the prevalence of sexual assaults in the military has steadily expanded over the past 20 years from an average of one a day to 70.

Reform advocates and their supporters in Congress, who fought to hear more from survivors of the trauma throughout the debate and lost, are expecting senior military leaders to tout prevention-training efforts and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent recommendation to remove the power of commanders to overturn convictions. It’s anticipated that military brass will vow to take the problem seriously, while holding the line on significant additional changes in law.

What’s more, military leaders might do more than just speak against reform proposals. They could stoke simmering frustrations among victims’ advocates, and perhaps appear out of touch with the crisis at hand, by walking out of the hearing before any reform supporters speak. They did just that earlier this year after testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, which buried victims’ advocates on the last panel.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he understands concerns about the witness roster but stated that it is important to put senior military leaders on the record to explain their opposition and lay out what changes could be made to gain their support for reform.

“The question really is how to meaningfully and significantly change the military justice system to provide greater justice and elicit more reporting of sexual abuse,” he said. “I’ll want specific responses on specific proposals.”

The bill with the best chance of survival is a modest measure offered by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would remove powers of commanders to overturn convictions, a move that military commanders support and Hagel recommends. It also would strengthen penalties for offenders.

But the more sweeping reforms are likely to be pushed aside, including a bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision whether to prosecute sexual-assault cases out of the chain of command.

Greg Jacob, a policy expert with the Service Women’s Action Network, the other victim-advocacy group slated to testify, said he takes a longer view. He reasons that debate now can help build momentum for reforms that will likely take several years to pass into law.

“This hearing lays the groundwork for future work. I don’t think this is going to get solved in the 113th, or 114th, or 115th Congress,” he said. “This is an ongoing issue that is going to require cooperation and work between all the parties to put a fix into place here.”

This article appears in the June 4, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Sexual-Assault Reforms Hit New Hurdles.