Why Congress likely will move quickly to curb sex assaults in the military

Anyone doubtful that Congress will move quickly this year to address the rise of sexual violence in the military need only review what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had to say on the topic Tuesday.

The night before, McCain recalled, a woman told him that her daughter wants to join the military and asked whether McCain could give his unqualified support for doing so.

"I could not," McCain said. "I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient."

For McCain -- a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war from whom Senate Republicans usually take cues on national security -- to so publicly rebuke military leaders for mishandling the issue is the best indicator of growing congressional resolve to quickly overhaul how the Pentagon handles sex crimes.

From left to right, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) listen during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)

A recent Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 troops experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, an increase of 35 percent over two years. But only a fraction of those troops — 3,374 — filed sexual-assault reports with military police or prosecutors.

Observers will cite several reasons why the issue is likely to earn outsized attention and support this year: An eagerness among lawmakers to do anything to help military troops, the involvement of a record number of female legislators in the issue, or the concern and criticisms from senior lawmakers such as McCain.

But let's first focus on the two most practical political and procedural reasons.

First, top House and Senate leaders wholeheartedly support finding a way to curb the rise of sexual assaults in the ranks -- and if leadership is on board, that almost always guarantees something will happen.

"The present program within the military is not working," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. "Women are being exploited and I’m sorry to report that even men are being exploited sexually, and that’s wrong.”

“It’s a national disgrace,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) added recently.

Reid and Boehner have said they want to address the problem by making changes through the annual defense authorization bill. It makes sense to enact a significant change in military policy in the bill that sets military policy, but the authorization bill is also one of the few remaining "must-pass" bills left on Capitol Hill -- meaning any changes are likely to easily earn approval.

That brings us to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held a historic hearing Tuesday to review several proposals introduced recently that would change how the military tracks and prosecutes allegations of sexual assault, proposals that could be included in this year's authorization bill. (Read more about the hearing here.)

As photos from the hearing dramatically demonstrate, never before in the modern era has Congress called together the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sit at the same witness table at the same time to testify on the same topic. (Notably, 11 of the 12 witnesses on the witness panel were men.)

And never before have seven women sat on the Senate panel responsible for military policy.

One of the women on the committee, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), rightly noted during the hearing that "this isn’t a gender issue, this is a violence issue."

But to have seven female senators -- five Democrats and two Republicans -- serving as the chief sponsors of the legislative proposals in the mix will not only pique public interest in the issue, but add to another intriguing political narrative, the rise of women in Congress. As countless numbers of stories have noted this year, more women than ever are in positions of influence on Capitol Hill, and their work often crosses partisan lines.

(RELATED: Updates on the Senate sexual assault hearing)

Two of the leading proposals introduced by women on the Armed Services Committee enjoy broad bipartisan support and have prompted a significant policy debate.

One proposal, by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would make it more difficult to reverse convictions for sexual assault crimes -- an idea that the top military brass appeared to endorse Tuesday. McCaskill's bill also would require that people found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses at least be dismissed or given a dishonorable discharge from the military. And her plan would remove a five-year statute of limitations on trial by courts-martial for allegations of sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. The bill is cosponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

The other proposal, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), goes further than McCaskill's by removing more serious assault-related prosecutions from the military chain of command. Such decisions would be put in the hands of military prosecutors. The military chiefs voiced opposition to the bill Tuesday, but it has more than 20 co-sponsors, including Collins, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Rep. Richard L. Hanna (R-N.Y.).

There's another, perhaps more tragic reason that Congress and the Pentagon are eager to address the rise of sexual violence in the ranks: An acknowledgment that 12 years of war have put an incredible psychological strain on the rank and file.

Because of those 12 years of war, "I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands that I had," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators Tuesday. With all the focus on combat, things like addressing social concerns in the ranks "just got pushed to the side," he added.

Worse, Dempsey said, "we also have to acknowledge that, coming out of this period of conflict, we've got soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, who engage in some high-risk behavior as they come out of the conflict. And so when you tie it all together, I wouldn't say that we've been inactive, but we've been less active than we probably need to be."

McCain noted during the hearing that the military faced a similar social challenge after its last long war in Vietnam. He said racism was so bad that there were race riots on aircraft carriers.

"We addressed the issue, and now I believe the military is our most effective equal-opportunity employer," he said. "We must do that in the case of this crisis that we're facing now. Today we all agree that action has to be taken."

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.



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