WASHINGTON – With broad support from Republicans and Democrats, a House committee Wednesday approved legislation to tackle the growing problem of sexual assault in the armed forces by taking away the power of military commanders to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.
The bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee also requires that anyone found guilty of a sex-related crime receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
“The word should go out clearly and strongly that if you commit a sexual assault in the military, you are out,” said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio. Turner and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote many of the provisions in the House bill.
By stripping commanders of their longstanding authority to reverse or change court-martial convictions, lawmakers are aiming to shake up the military’s culture and give victims the confidence that if they report a crime their allegations won’t be discounted and they won’t face retaliation.
Frustration has been building on Capitol Hill for weeks over the Defense Department’s failure to staunch sexual assaults in the ranks.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel.
The legislation is part of a sweeping defense policy bill that the Republican-led Armed Services Committee pulled together during a daylong session. The $638 billion measure for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 included $86 billion for the war in Afghanistan as well as contentious provisions on the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and nuclear weapons.
The full House is expected to vote on the bill next week.