WASHINGTON — In what seems like a case of ready-fire-aim, Congress is rewriting military sexual-assault laws and policies without waiting for the recommendations of an expert panel that lawmakers themselves once deemed necessary.
On Thursday and today, in a courtroom several blocks from the Capitol, the nine-member expert panel established by Congress was to continue its painstaking study of how the military responds to sexual assault. The panel’s recommendations won’t be finished until next summer.
Congress, meanwhile, is already pulling the trigger. As early as next week, the Senate will vote on some potentially far-reaching changes to military law that include a controversial proposal to remove sexual assault and other serious felonies from the usual chain of command.
“Congress set the timeline,” Army Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, the director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said in an interview Thursday. “The panel has been very deliberative in its collection of information ... we will be as responsive as possible.”
A former battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., Patton steered clear Thursday of discussing pending legislation or the possibility that Congress might legislate prematurely. Instead, in testimony before the awkwardly named but impressively staffed Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, Patton emphasized the Pentagon’s ongoing actions, as well as newly completed research.
The new data shows what Patton termed an unprecedented 46 percent increase in reports of military sexual assault during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013, compared with the first three quarters of fiscal year 2012. All told, 3,553 instances of alleged sexual assault were reported to the Defense Department from October 2012 through June 2013.
“It’s expected,” Patton told the panel, adding the increased reporting is “most likely due to greater victim confidence as a result of the programs we have put into place.”
During the comparable nine-month period in fiscal 2012, 2,434 instances of alleged sexual assault were reported to the Defense Department.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is pushing one set of military justice revisions, called the increase in reported assaults a sign of progress, in that victims “have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders.”
McCaskill opposes an amendment championed by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command.
Lawmakers think it’s time to take action now. “There have already been dozens of reports on this issue and the military has had more than 20 years to solve this problem. How much longer should victims have to wait to get a fair shot at justice?” Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said.