Members urge action on delayed military sexual assault proposals

Bipartisan letter implores DOD to implement measures recommended from “nearly a decade” ago

Rep. Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, and Rep. Trent Kelly, the panel’s ranking member, wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense on Friday. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Rep. Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, and Rep. Trent Kelly, the panel’s ranking member, wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense on Friday. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted May 18, 2020 at 5:00am

Two key House members urged the Pentagon in writing Friday to take “immediate action” to strengthen the military’s fight against sexual assault and harassment by finally implementing measures that Defense Department officials had said they would enact “nearly a decade” ago.

The letter to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper comes from California Democrat Jackie Speier, chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, and Mississippi Republican Trent Kelly, the panel’s ranking member. 

“Sexual harassment cannot continue to trend in the wrong direction,” Speier and Kelly wrote. “DoD must be more responsive. Nine years is more than enough time. We urge you to ensure that these priority recommendations are resolved as soon as possible.”

The letter reflects the longstanding bipartisan nature of concern about sexual offenses in the military and it comes just ahead of a House Armed Services markup of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill. The markup has yet to be scheduled but is expected to take place this month.

Speier and Kelly, in their letter, urged Esper to create a strategy for tracking senior leaders’ performance in combating sexual offenses and also to set up an oversight mechanism — with measurable goals — to monitor the military’s overall performance in reducing the problem. 

The Government Accountability Office had made those two recommendations in 2011, and a top Pentagon official had concurred then and said the military would implement the recommendations that same fiscal year. 

But on May 11, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, wrote Esper and Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist a letter listing 81 GAO recommendations for the Defense Department that remain unfulfilled. The longstanding proposals to better oversee sexual harassment were among them, and on May 13 CQ Roll Call first reported Dodaro’s plea for the 2011 proposals.

Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that the department had taken other steps to achieve the same goals as those two recommendations. 

But Speier and Kelly defended the GAO recommendations themselves as important. 

“For over a decade, DoD leaders have told us that they are fully committed to eliminating sexual harassment and sexual assault from the military ranks, and that ‘change starts from the top,’” Speier and Kelly wrote. “Yet today, in 2020, the department still has not established policies to hold leadership accountable for implementing policies to address sexual harassment. The cost of delay is clear, as DoD data shows a 10 percent increase in complaints of sexual harassment from 2018 to 2019.”