By a 423-0 vote — and for the second time in a month — the House of Representatives has passed legislation that would require independent investigations if military rape or sexual assault victims allege retaliation for reporting the crimes.
The intention is to encourage the reporting of crimes and discourage reprisals.
Sponsored by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., the legislation approved Thursday is identical to a provision included in the House version of the 2014 defense authorization bill passed June 14 and similar to a provision also included in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill.
Passing the free-standing measure is a sign lawmakers are serious about stopping sexual assault in the ranks, as well as an effort by House Republican leaders to boost the standing of Walorski, a freshman representative who won her congressional seat with less than 1 percent of the vote. This is her first stand-alone bill to pass the House.
Walorski’s bill, HR 1864, attempts to address what is widely believed to be the underreporting of sexual assaults because of victims’ fears of real or perceived threats of intimidation and reprisal from within their chain of command.
A Defense Department report released in May estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military last year, but only 3,600 cases were reported. The report also said 62 percent of those who reported a sexual assault said they faced reprisal.
“Many individuals do not come forward because they do not have confidence in the military justice system,” Walorski said June 26 when her bill was first discussed on the House floor. “Others don’t come forward because they fear reprisal or believe reporting another service member will negatively impact their own career.”
The underreporting and the fear of the consequences “demonstrates that we have a real problem,” she said.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a cosponsor of the bill, said it cannot pass fast enough. “We need it today.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said June 12 as his panel was passing sexual assault legislation that the Defense Department has “a problem with the inadequate investigation of sexual assaults. We have a problem with the lack of support for victims of sexual assaults. We have a problem with retaliation, ostracism, and peer pressure against such victims.”
Levin’s House counterpart, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., agrees. “The shameful record of sexual assault in the military cannot end until we change a military culture that too often tolerates these crimes and intimidates the victims,” said McKeon, the House Armed Services Committee chairman.
“If we want to end the epidemic of sexual assault in our military, we must ensure that these victims come forward to report their assault without fear that they will be victimized again by the institution,” said Rep. Susan Davis of California, ranking Democrat on the armed services committee’s military personnel panel.