Senator Joni Hearst and a Military Sexual Assault Bill

Sunday, July 21st, 2019
By Jacqueline Alemany,  The Washington Post
Power Up: Joni Ernst says there’s more momentum than ever to tackle military sexual assault

On The Hill

A WAY FORWARD: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) says the junction of the #MeToo movement and the record number of female veterans serving in Congress means there’s more momentum than ever to tackle the issue of military sexual assault.

That’s why she’s rolling out a new bill, the Military Special Victims Protection Act, which would require additional oversight and training on a broader spectrum of sexual misconduct and domestic violence offenses. It’s one of several bills proposed by female veterans in recent weeks to tackle military sexual assault that they also plan to submit as amendments to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.

  • Especially notable: Ernst’s bill, co-sponsored by Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), aims to find a compromise on a sticking point among those seeking to change how these cases are prosecuted — by allowing an independent legal adviser to review cases of sexual misconduct in some cases.

It’s personal: Ernst, a veteran who earlier this year disclosed she had been a victim of domestic abuse and was raped in college, says the societal shift means she’s now comfortable discussing a topic she once felt was taboo.

“When you have more women veterans serving, sexual assault survivors out there talking about it, then people just understand: If this can happen to a senator, it can happen to my sister, my mother, anybody,” Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, told Power Up. “It’s a little more personal for people now, people serving in the Senate.”

  • It’s helping her get things done: People know “I’m a credible source when I’m working on a bill,” Ernst adds. “It’s a personal issue for me.”
  • And talk to her colleagues: “When we talk about it, they are less likely to brush it off.”
  • Still: “I think some of our other colleagues are a little uncomfortable and these things makes them a little nervous when we talk about it — but it has to be talked about,” she added.

Compromise: Lawmakers working on the issue are divided over whether sexual assault cases should be handled within the military’s chain of command. Ernst’s bill could provide a way forward. 

  • Critics of the military’s justice system, which allows commanders to determine how and whether to pursue a criminal case for a reported sexual assault, say victims often don’t trust the system to bring justice and fear retaliation. Lawmakers such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) want independent, specially trained military prosecutors to fully handle any sexual assault cases.
  • Ernst says her bill would allow an independent review for an “additional check and balance” if there’s disagreement between the commander and the victim’s assigned legal adviser over whether to move forward with an assault case — or, the military superior decides to take only administrative punishment.
  • “It is a shift,” said Ernst. “It doesn’t take it necessarily out of the chain of command, but if there is disagreement, it does provide another independent voice on how that case should be handled.” 
  • Points of contention: “Senator Gillibrand and I work closely on this and she’s just said, ‘Nope. Everything needs to be out of the chain of command,'” Ernst said. “I do still tend to disagree with that, but in case something would happen — if there is a commander who says, ‘I do not want to move forward based on my [Judge Advocate General’s] recommendation’ — then we have someone else that can provide that check.” (Gillibrand’s office did not reply to request for comment.)
  • Notable: Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) who revealed earlier this year that she was raped by a superior in the Air Force, has argued to keep decision-making about sexual assault cases in the chain of command structure.

Is more change possible?: That’s what Ernst hopes to find out in another proposal. She’s planning to offer a separate amendment to the NDAA that calls for the Pentagon to conduct an assessment on the feasibility of alternative prosecutorial models — a clear nod to Gillibrand’s approach — and would examine the efficacy of moving prosecutions outside of the chain of command.

The big picture: Prosecution is only a part of the problem, Ernst says. 

  • Rates of reporting sexual assault have quadrupled since the Department of Defense first implemented policy to encourage greater reporting of sexual assault in 2005, according to a reportreleased by the Pentagon earlier this month.
  • Ernst pointed to the 30 percent reporting rate as an indication that the prevention of military sexual assault is a bigger problem than prosecution: “I don’t see that we’re not prosecuting — prosecutions are happening. People are being punished for sexual assault. The problem is sexual assaults are still happening,” Ernst argued.
  • Big spike: The Pentagon recorded a nearly 38 percent increase in sexual assaults reported by service members in 2018.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Expect a debate on these issues when the Senate Armed Services Committee begins reviewing the NDAA next week. 

McSally this week released a bill this week that would make sexual harassment a crime in the military and reduce the length of time a victim has to wait for the case to be prosecuted. 

  • “Our intent is to include as much as possible in the mark up of the defense bill,” McSally told reporters at a luncheon earlier this week, hosted by Winning for Women, an organization aimed at supporting female GOP candidates.
  • Notable: Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told lawmakers earlier this month he wants to “criminalize” such harassment, and is expected to direct the Pentagon to make it a stand-alone crime under military law, per CNN.

Sinema and Ernst are also introducing a second bipartisan bill which directs the Department of Defense to create a 20-person civilian advisory committee on preventing sexual assault in the military. 

  • “The bill would also allow the military to pay for exceptionally qualified enlisted members to attend law school and join the JAG (Judge Advocate General’s) Corps under the already-existing Funded Legal Education Program,” Ernst’s office said in a release.

Kicker: Ernst, who speaks with President Trump on a consistent basis, thinks “he’ll be very willing to support” the provisions.

  • “You’ll see a lot of support for it. I’m excited,” she said. “If I feel that I have to call him, I will call him — he’ll be supportive.”
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