By Richard Lardner and Donna Cassata
With broad support from Republicans and Democrats, a House committee approved legislation on Wednesday 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 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 Representative Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican. Turner and Representative Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, 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 stanch 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. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
""The military has obviously been unable to solve this problem independently,'' Tsongas said.
The legislation is part of a sweeping defense policy bill that the 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 US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and nuclear weapons.
The full House is expected to vote on the bill next week.
Despite the congressional clamor to cut the deficit, the bill fails overall to acknowledge the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that Washington has grudgingly accepted. The $41 billion cuts hit the Pentagon on March 1, and it faces deeper reductions in projected spending of close to $1 trillion over a decade, but the bill did not reflect that reality for next fiscal year. The Pentagon likely will have to cut $54 billion to meet the numbers dictated by the so-called sequester.
The committee's action on sexual assaults came one day after a high-profile Senate hearing, during which senators grilled military leaders about the scourge in their ranks. The leaders conceded that they have been less than diligent in dealing with the problem, but pushed back against far-reaching legislation to give the authority to level charges to a military prosecutor rather than the victim's commander.
Military leaders are more receptive to the House provisions, which would strip commanders of the discretion to reverse a court-martial ruling, except in cases involving minor offenses. Commanders also would be barred from reducing a guilty finding by a court-martial to guilty of a lesser offense.
The measure also requires anyone found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
The legislation eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. It also establishes the authority for military legal counsel to provide legal assistance to victims of sex-related offenses and requires enhanced training for all military and civilian attorneys involved in sex-related cases.
Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who has introduced separate legislation that would take the reporting and investigation of sexual assaults out of the military's normal chain of command, applauded the committee's action. But she said she would continue to push for even broader changes.
""Unless we increase the number of prosecutions and the number of convictions, we have not achieved the goal,'' she said. ""We have not sanitized the military of sexual predators.''