Lawmakers from both parties joined forces Tuesday to revive a failed bill that would take commanders out of the process of reporting and prosecuting sexual assault cases in the U.S. military.
At a July 16 press conference, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stood beside other colleagues to announce the launch of a new effort to gain support for an amendment that failed to make it through the Senate Armed Services Committee in June.
The new proposal was written in response to the stories told by sexual assault victims, Gillibrand said, explaining that "they didn't trust the chain of command, that they were retaliated against, that they didn't believe justice was possible."
"This is not a democratic idea; it is not a republican idea. It's a good idea that meets the needs of the victims, creates transparency and accountability and creates the needed objectivity this issue deserves," the Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand's initial bill effort failed when the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 12 voted 17-9 in favor of an amendment, sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Levin's amendment directs the defense secretary to prohibit retaliation against a victim for reporting a sexual assault, and make such retaliation a criminal offense.
The Pentagon's failure to control the dramatic increases in sexual assault throughout the U.S. military has infuriated Congress in recent months.
An estimated 26,000 active-duty troops had unwanted sexual contact in fiscal 2012, up from about 19,300 in 2010, according to a report the Pentagon released May 7. By comparison, 3,374 troops reported sexual assaults last year, an increase of 5.7 percent from the previous year, according to the report.
This new effort has more weight behind it since it is now co-sponsored by Cruz, a republican who has been undecided on the issue in the past.
Cruz voted for Gillibrand's initial bill in June, but admitted he was undecided at first.
"I was really persuaded by the argument Sen. Gillibrand presented at the Armed Services hearing," he told reporters. "I think all of us want to solve this problem. The question is what's the right solution that will fix it – that will prevent sexual assault and also maintain good order and discipline and maintain the integrity of the chain of command. I think this is a common-sense approach to fixing a problem, to making our military stronger and make sure we can stand by and protect every serviceman and service woman."
The proposal calls for the chain of command to be removed from overseeing sexual assault cases, leaving them up to a special section of military prosecutors instead.
"They are very knowledgeable; they know whether they can win these cases," Gillibrand said. "I want that trained military prosecutor, not just any commander because not every commander will have the determination the military brass we saw pledge in the last hearing. Not every commander is going to understand that rape is a serious, violent crime of domination more often not related to dating and romance but more often related to dominance and violence and power. That is why I don't believe Sen. Levin's proposal will work."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., agreed with Gillibrand, relating that she has served in Congress for 21 years and has "watched every secretary of defense call for zero tolerance on sexual assault in the military and every time nothing happens."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is also among the more than 30 lawmakers that have pledged support for the effort.
"The status quo is not working, and we need to shake it up," he said. "If we don't crack down on the corrosive culture that this sexual assault represents, if we don't crack down on the individuals who use sexual violence as a means of personal power and personal gain then we will create lingering institutional problems that will jeopardize morale and impact recruitment and retention of troops."