Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently found some unexpected allies in her quest to remove the chain of command from military sexual assault cases. Politico reports that two prominent Tea Party favorites, Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have signed onto Gillibrand’s effort.
Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act was introduced in mid-May, and has already secured 33 cosponsors. Her bill would enact the most drastic overhaul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice was established in 1950.
“Senator Paul believes that the vast majority of our service members are honorable and upstanding individuals,” Paul spokesman Moira Bagley told Politico in an email. “In the instance when one is accused of a serious crime, especially one of harassment or assault, the allegation needs to be taken seriously and conflicts of interest should not impact whether a crime is prosecuted properly."
While Gillibrand’s newfound conservative support certainly gives her cover moving forward, her bill has garnered expected criticism from hawks and top military leaders, who oppose the removal of top military commanders from the judicial process. In June, Gillibrand's proposal suffered a setback during a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, when leaders from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard argued that such an overhaul would severely jeopardize the chain of command and unit cohesion.
But Gillibrand has emphasized that the same chain of command that prevents victims from reporting sexual assault. "The victims say it is the climate, that they fear retaliation," Gillibrand said in June. "Their commanders are not creating a climate where they feel they can report without being blamed, being retaliated against, being marginalized, having their careers be over."
Gillibrand is hoping that her proposal will fare better in the full Senate than it did in a committee in which many lawmakers had close ties with the Defense Department. But the senator is battling against both a Republican controlled House and members of her own party; Democratic Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Miss.) are pushing a rival bill that seeks to crack down on sexual assault without disrupting the chain of command.
“I told her from the very beginning I’m not as convinced that this is going to be more helpful in terms of prosecutions and protecting people from retaliation,” McCaskill said last month in interview about the Senate’s attempt at reform. “I’m not as convinced as you are that that’s the key to the kingdom. There are other things that are more important, and I’m not sure that approach, we’ve got any data to show that’s going to work.”