Pressure is building on Capitol Hill to make sweeping policy changes to deal head-on with the military’s epidemic of sexual assaults, but Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin may prove to be a moderating force as his panel considers a range of proposals aimed at reversing the trend on these crimes.
At the outset of a marathon hearing on the issue Tuesday, the Michigan Democrat made clear that he believes the military’s chain of command is key to changing its culture and preventing sexual assaults within the force.
He did not explicitly endorse or oppose any of the legislative proposals that his panel will consider next week when it marks up the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, but his comments in support of the chain of command suggest he may be reluctant to support some of the more far-reaching proposals offered by members of his committee.
Still, the passion surrounding the issue, which has been fueled in recent weeks by what appears to be an endless spate of sexual-assault scandals involving military personnel, will almost certainly make it a centerpiece issue during Senate floor debate on the bill later this year.
The military’s service chiefs, along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, made their case Tuesday against some of the more drastic changes in how the military justice system functions when it comes to sexual assault.
Among those is a bill sponsored by Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision for prosecution out of the accused’s chain of command for all felony-level offenses but keep it within the military itself.
That bill (S 967), which Gillibrand hopes to attach to the sprawling defense authorization measure when the panel subcommittees meet next week to mark it up, would leave the decision up to military leaders, which supporters call “professionalizing the military justice system.”
Levin has not commented specifically on Gillibrand’s or any other bill, but on Tuesday he stressed that the military is a hierarchical organization and message comes from the top of the chain of command. Only commanders, he said, have the authority to address cultural problems within units.
“The chain of command has achieved cultural change before — for example, two generations ago when we faced problems with racial dissension in the military and more recently with the change to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Levin said. “And the chain of command can do it again. The men and women of our military deserve no less.”
Senate Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said he is opposed to any provision that would diminish commanders’ role in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. He also stressed that the military only began implementing many provisions addressing sexual assault in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law (PL 112-239).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.