Military commanders will keep their authority over sexual assault prosecutions, after the Senate blocked a proposal to radically overhaul the way the military justice system deals with serious crimes.
This is a major setback for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, who has spent much of the last year holding hearings, talking to survivors, and collecting support for her proposal, which would have removed decisions about serious crimes like sexual assault from the chain of command and placed it with military prosecutors. The vote on whether to move forward failed to cross the 60 vote threshold, 55-45.
“Despite earning the support of the majority of the Senate, we fell five votes short of overcoming the 60-vote filibuster threshold. But we will not walk away, we will continue to work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military,” Sen. Gillibrand said in prepared remarks distributed after the vote. “Without a doubt, with the National Defense bill we passed, and Senator McCaskill’s Victims Protection Act, we have taken good steps to stand up for victims, and hold offenders accountable. But we have not taken a step far enough. We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress.”
Another bill, introduced by Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, featured a number of less sweeping reforms but left authority with military commanders, advanced after it easily cleared the 60 vote marker. “This debate has been about one thing,” McCaskill said in a statement after the vote, “getting the policy right to best protect and empower victims, and boost prosecutions of predators. I believe we’re on the cusp of achieving that goal. The Senate has voted to strengthen even further what is now one of the most victim-friendly justice systems in the world.”
Both bills were originally amendments to last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which included a spate of historic reforms to the military’s sexual assault response policies. Opponents of Gillibrand’s proposal, who consider her approach too extreme, have argued that the military needs time to implement the new changes before overhauling the system. Republican Senators Susan Collins and Chuck Grassley both dismissed that claim. “How many more victims are required to suffer before we act further?” Collins, who has been working on this issue for a decade, said from the floor. “Rather than waiting for the results of yet more studies, we must continue to enact real reforms to increase the confidence of survivors” to report crimes.
“We’re past the point of tinkering,” Grassley added.
Sexual assault in the military has been a serious problem for years, but a series of high profile cases, some of them involving officers in charge of sexual assault and harassment prevention programs, kept the issue in the spotlight in 2013. Defense Department estimates that of the 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact occurred in 2012, only 3,374 reports were filed – further illustrating the magnitude of the problem.
Today’s votes are unlikely to take pressure off the Pentagon. The Department of Defense will release its annual report on sexual assault in the armed forces this spring. After the Associated Press reported that sexual assault reports had spiked more than 50% in 2013, President Obama ordered Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to conduct a comprehensive review of sexual assault response and prevention policies and report to him by December.
The votes took place as two sexual assault court martials are beginning. The court martial of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair began Tuesday. Sinclair faces charges that he forced a female junior officer to perform oral sex on him and threatened to kill her family. Headmitted guilt on several lesser charges related to inappropriate sexual relationships, but pleaded not guilty to the assault and threat charges. Former U.S. Naval Academy football player Joshua Tate’s court martial is scheduled to begin March 14. Tate and two teammates faced allegations that they sexually assaulted a female midshipman at a 2012 party. Charges were dropped against those two men.
Advocates for survivors vowed to keep fighting to change the system. “We may have lost this battle due to political maneuverings, but effective reform will be accomplished,” Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders, said in a statement. “It is only a matter of time. We will redouble our efforts to secure the legal rights of American servicemen and women who have been sexually abused while serving their country.”