Can Congress solve the military's sexual assault problem?

Lawmakers have introduced several proposals to curb the growing problem

Female Marine recruits
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Furious over a growing epidemic of sexual assault in the military, members of Congress are drafting a number of proposals aimed at addressing the problem.

On Thursday, a group of lawmakers unveiled a bill that would give sexual assault victims more power to challenge their alleged attackers, while at the same time making it harder for military brass to dismiss those cases.

The bill, introduced at a press conference by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), along with Reps. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), would bar commanding officers from throwing out court-marshal convictions for rape and sexual assault. That issue came up earlier this year, after an Air Force general dismissed a sexual assault conviction against another officer.

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On Wednesday, a House subcommittee approved separate legislation that would similarly strip commanding officers of their power to unilaterally toss out court-martial convictions on rape and sexual assault charges. That legislation will be rolled into a broader defense bill later this year.

The new bill, though, would also make mandatory dishonorable discharges for soldiers convicted of rape, as well as an array of other sexual assault crimes. And it would end the five-year statute of limitations on service members pressing sexual assault charges.

"The problems the U.S. military have had dealing with this issue — whether it's aggressively prosecuting perpetrators or effectively protecting survivors — are well chronicled and have gone on far too long," McCaskill said in a statement. "It's time for the reforms contained in this bill, and I'm going to work with my colleagues in both chambers and in both parties to ensure that they're enacted."

Tsongas made a personal plea in discussing the legislation, relating the story of a female solider who once told her she was more afraid of her fellow soldiers than the enemy.

"She carried a knife in her waistband on-base in case she ever needed to fight back. That's why we introduced this legislation — to fight back," she said. "Our bill is an important first step at looking to change the power of commanders and bring power back to those who have had it ripped away."

The bill comes one day after the news that a West Point officer, Sgt. First Class Michael McClendon, had been accused of secretly videotaping female cadets while they showered. It's the latest in a string of shocking headlines about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military — and about officers' alleged roles in perpetrating or covering up those crimes. According to the Pentagon's own estimate, there were some 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults in the military in 2012 alone, a 35 percent increase since 2010.

Congress is also considering other legislation to deal with the problem. A bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would create a separate body to prosecute all military crimes — not only sexual assaults — that could carry a prison sentence of a year or more.

"If you judged all our commanders of today based on the occurrence of sexual assault and rape in the military, they would all be receiving a failing grade," she said in an interview with PBS.

Yet another bill, the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act, introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) would provide victims of sexual assault with military lawyers, and ensure that more sexual assault cases are referred for a court-martial review.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.