Congressional lawmakers cast their final votes Thursday to curb retaliation against service members who report sexual assault, sending the legislation to President Obama in one of their last bipartisan acts in an otherwise fraught year.
The U.S. Senate passed the Military Retaliation Prevention Act as part of a broader defense authorization that defines the terms of fiscal year 2017 spending for the military and related activities. The U.S. House of Representatives voted on the same underlying bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), last week.
The NDAA en route to Obama represents the compromise of a bicameral conference committee that sought to reconcile House and Senate sticking points, including a failed House GOP-led effort to codify discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and a broad range of other identities. Obama is expected to sign the bill into law and, by extension, make retaliation a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, applicable to all U.S. service members around the world.
In doing so, the Military Retaliation Prevention Act takes aim at the “stubbornly high rates” of retaliation for sexual assault survivors in the military, according to a press release from Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), the bill’s lead co-sponsors. They pointed to the most recent U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) annual report on sexual assault in the military, which found that 62 percent of women reporting incidents of unwanted sexual contact experienced social or professional retaliation. The report did not include rates of retaliation for other gender identities.
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“Those rates of experienced retaliation remain high, even as the number of assaults has dropped and reporting by victims has gone up, following a slate of historic reforms overhauling the military justice system,” McCaskill and Ernst said in the press release. Their retaliation-focused bill, they said, also requires notifying survivors of how their complaints were resolved and establishing metrics to measure the outcomes, as well as specific training for complaint investigators.
NDAA bills in recent years have included provisions addressing sexual assault and retaliation, Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire in a phone interview.
“This is a progression of the Congress, in a bipartisan way, actually requiring more specifically of DOD that it do a better job of preventing and responding to sexual assault issues, including, particularly in this instance, retaliation, given the increase in numbers there,” she said.
Campbell called for more to be done, including passage of the stalled Military Justice Improvement Act. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would shift the prosecution of serious crimes, including sexual assault, from the military’s chain of command to independent military prosecutors.
“I think there’s more to be done on the military justice side, but these [retaliation] provisions are obviously ways of showing that Congress takes this seriously and DOD should too,” Campbell said.
Campbell raised one concern amid increasing congressional efforts to address military sexual assault: “With so many provisions coming so fast and furious year after year, I’m not sure that Congress is performing its oversight role in determining whether DOD has actually implemented these.”
“The extent to which they’ve been implemented, and the extent to which Congress is really trying to take a hard look at which ones are working and which ones aren’t, probably could be improved,” she said.