Lawmakers last year gave the military the benefit of the doubt that its leaders were working hard to stop the epidemic of sexual assault within their ranks, opting for a package of modest changes over far more controversial proposals that had drawn staunch opposition from the Pentagon.
This year is a different story altogether.
The news on military sexual assault has gone from bad to worse to unbelievable over the past two weeks after two sexual-assault-prevention officials were themselves charged with assault. A third was arrested last week in a domestic dispute and relieved of his command.
A new Pentagon report, meanwhile, only underscores the pervasiveness of this problem, concluding that these crimes spiked 37 percent over the past two years, rising to an average of 77 assaults per day within the military.
The result has been a flurry of legislation from all corners of Capitol Hill aimed at correcting the problem. The annual defense authorization bill, which House Armed Services subcommittees start marking up Wednesday, will incorporate some of these proposals, although the proposals are likely to trigger strong arguments.
The approaches differ widely, but there is one constant throughout each bill: Lawmakers of both parties — even some of the Pentagon’s biggest boosters — no longer trust the military to handle this problem on its own.
“They still seem to be incredibly clueless,” said Republican Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, a senior House Armed Services Committee member who co-chairs the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. “When we talk to the leadership, I think they honestly don’t understand that they have a culture problem, which they should see in the statistics.”
Turner’s name has been attached to many of the provisions addressing military sexual assault that have made it through Congress the past several years. But as the problem has persisted, the Ohio Republican has only become more frustrated.
“The military has got to understand that this is a crime,” he said. “It’s a vicious, violent crime, and it needs to be treated as such.”
Last year, Congress, with the support of the Pentagon, agreed to move the decision for prosecuting these crimes up the chain of the command, to the colonel level, to try to eliminate bias. But proposals to move this decision out of the chain of command — subverting a tradition that dates back to the 18th century — were never seriously considered on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.