WASHINGTON — The outcry over the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military is spurring Congress to act, with a House panel moving ahead on Wednesday on stripping commanders of the ability to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.
The legislation is part of a sweeping defense policy bill that the House Armed Services Committee methodically pulled together during a daylong session expected to last past midnight. 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.
“It is paramount that we protect those who protect our nation,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee. At the same time, Smith acknowledged that legislation alone will not solve the problem, and the military needs to address the inherent cultural problems in the services.
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.
Despite the congressional clamor to cut the deficit, the committee bill rejects several Pentagon attempts to save money. The panel spares a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, rebuffs attempts to increase health care fees for retirees and their dependents and opposes another round of domestic base closures.
In fact, the panel didn’t just say no to more base closings, it went as far as including a provision barring the Pentagon from even planning for another round.
That drew ridicule from Smith, who offered an amendment essentially eliminating the prohibition on the Pentagon thinking ahead. Smith said it made no sense to tie the Pentagon’s hands as it faces smaller budgets.
“I don’t think this committee has the luxury of being so darn parochial anymore, to say every single time any one of the (military) services comes into our state and says, `Look, we’ve got to rearrange,’ that we’re going to fight tooth-and-nail to stop them,” Smith said.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., supported Smith’s effort, complaining that as the Pentagon tries to determine excess bases, Congress is saying “we don’t even want to know.”
But some Republicans argued that they didn’t want the Pentagon wasting time planning something that Congress would never accept.
The panel planned to vote on the amendment later in the day.
Overall, the bill fails to acknowledge the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that Washington has grudgingly accepted. The cuts of $41 billion hit the Pentagon on March 1, forced the military to furlough workers and scale back training.
The Pentagon 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 came one day after a high-profile Senate hearing on sexual assault in 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 effort by Reps. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. Their measure, which the full committee was considering Wednesday, 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 would require that 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.
Separately, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee was meeting behind closed doors to vote on a defense spending bill that contains $513 billion for core Pentagon operations and $86 billion for operations in Afghanistan.