Lawmakers from both parties on Thursday expressed optimism that they could work with the White House on a number of legislative proposals aimed at getting the military’s growing epidemic of sexual assault under control.
Days after the Pentagon announced a surprising 37 percent spike in sexual assaults in 2012, senior White House officials met with lawmakers to discuss approaches to fixing the problem.
Republican Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, who co-chairs the House’s Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said the White House was in “listening mode” about the specific legislative proposals discussed at the meeting.
“I think the White House is taking this very seriously and is looking to work in cooperation with Congress on the pending legislation,” Turner said in an interview after the meeting.
Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, who co-chairs the caucus with Turner, called the meeting “a clear indication that they want to work with members of Congress who have been so engaged in this issue over the years.”
The session comes amid a growing uproar in Congress over the Pentagon’s worsening sexual assault problem. The issue is quickly becoming a major feature in the debate over this year’s defense authorization measure.
The Defense Department released a new report this week on sexual assaults that indicates that the number of these crimes grew 37 percent, from an estimated 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 last year.
The report was released one day after news broke that the Air Force officer in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention and response branch was arrested over the weekend in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery — a development that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III called “incomprehensible” during a hearing Thursday with the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
Turner, who has worked with Tsongas to insert new policy governing sexual assault into the last several defense authorization bills, said he has received assurances from House Armed Services Committee leaders that their latest bill will be included when the panel marks up the fiscal 2014 measure in the coming weeks.
Specifically, the bill would eliminate military commanders’ ability to reverse convictions for any charge except in the case of minor offenses, a move that has the support of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. It would also limit commanders’ ability to commute or lessen sentences.
In addition, the Turner-Tsongas bill (HR 1867) would ensure those found guilty of rape, sexual assault, sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those crimes, are — at a minimum — dismissed or dishonorably discharged from the military. The five-year statute of limitations within the military’s justice system for sexual assault cases would be eliminated, and legal assistance services available to victims would be expanded.
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.