Rep. Mike Turner is announcing plans on Friday to lead a new Republican effort in the House to overhaul how the military handles sexual assault and other serious crimes, amid a rise in cases in the ranks.
Support from the Ohio Republican, an influential House Armed Services Committee member, could be a boon for the bill’s chances and may pave the way for skeptical House GOP members to support the measure. It also comes as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has launched a similar bill with high-profile support as the overall effort to change the military's system reaches a critical mass in the House and Senate.
Along with a Democratic co-sponsor, Turner plans to quickly introduce a companion bill in the House to bipartisan Senate legislation that would take a military commander’s authority to prosecute felony-level criminal cases, including sexual assault and harassment, and give it to specialized military prosecutors.
The Senate version, which was introduced by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), also increases prevention efforts by enhancing training for certain leadership positions, improving security at military installations, and increasing training for military prosecutors investigating these crimes.
Turner, who had been against previous iterations of the bill, said this version addresses all of his concerns, including promoting equal rights protection for service members accused of sexual assault.
Gillibrand “has done what everybody hopes will happen in Washington, and that is she listened to fellow senators, members of the House, the military academics and the legal community,” Turner said in an interview.
“This is done so well that I think that in the end it is really going to professionalize criminal prosecution within the military, and I think it is going to help the commanders in their overall responsibility,” Turner said.
Reports of sexual assault in the military have risen steadily since 2006, despite efforts to reduce them. Turner’s endorsement comes less than a day after the Pentagon released its latest annual survey on sexual assault in the military, which indicated that the total number of reports from service members for incidents that occurred during military service rose by 1 percent compared to fiscal 2019, to 6,290 in fiscal 2020.
Gillibrand’s longstanding effort to take decisions over prosecuting sexual assault out of the hands of military commanders has recently gained traction. Supporters of the bill believe they now have at least 61 co-sponsors, or enough votes in the Senate to secure its passage, Gillibrand said in a recent media interview.
“Congressman Turner is a longtime leader in the fight to combat sexual assault in the military and has a proven record of enacting legislation to deliver justice for survivors. I’m grateful for his strong support,” said Gillibrand in a statement emailed to POLITICO. “This is a truly bipartisan bill and it’s time to get this done.”
The effort drew new support from both parties after a Pentagon panel established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an initial recommendation last month that an independent military prosecutor — not a commanding officer — should handle such decisions. The recommendation did not apply to broader criminal cases, as Gillibrand’s legislation does.
Austin has said that he will seek input about the panel’s recommendation from top military leaders, who have long resisted such a change. Top generals and admirals across the force, as well as prominent former senior officers, have argued that the move would undermine discipline in the ranks and erode the chain of command.
But views on the issue seem to be shifting within the military community as well. Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said he is open to reforming the process. Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chair and influential Austin adviser, also became the first prominent retired military officer to support the move in an interview with POLITICO last month.
Turner, who is the co-chair of the House sexual assault prevention caucus, said he recently met with the members of the Pentagon’s independent review panel, and he believes their ultimate recommendations will be “very consistent” with Gillibrand’s legislation.
“I think in the end we will have unanimity,” Turner said. “The fact that we have been working on this for decades and now even those who are in the chain say that we need help I think bolsters” the argument.
Turner has a long history of advocating for victims of sexual assault in the military, his office said. He recently helped enact legislation that provided for expedited transfers for victims, established a mandatory dishonorable discharge for convicted sex offenders, limited commanders’ ability to grant clemency, and established a Special Victims’ Counsel for victims of sexual assault.
Still, he stressed that while passing the legislation, which lawmakers hope to attach to the annual defense policy bill, is a significant step, it is not a “panacea.”
“Even if we do this, I don’t think we are going to immediately see that the numbers drop,” Turner said.
The announcement comes less than a day after Speier and several co-sponsors reintroduced separate legislation that would make sexual harassment a standalone offense and move prosecution decisions on sexual assault and sexual harassment out of the chain of command. The bill would also establish a process for compensating service members who survive sexual violence.
Speier’s bill is more narrowly focused than Gillibrand’s overhaul of the military justice system, concentrating on cases of sexual assault and harassment rather than broader felony-level crimes.
Speier's legislation is backed by both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Armed Service Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
Like Turner, Smith's support marks another senior defense lawmaker to endorse removing decisions to prosecute from the chain of command. Smith previously opposed the move, but said in recent months he was open to the shift because of a lack of progress in reducing sexual assaults in the ranks.
"We need this level of dramatic change," Smith said Thursday.
Aspects of both bills could end up in the final version of the defense policy bill. It’s unclear how far the House will go in overhauling military prosecutions, but either way lawmakers will have to compromise during conference for the legislation to become law.
The legislation is named in honor of the late Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was murdered by another soldier at her base of Fort Hood, Texas, after she told family members that she was being sexually harassed.
Asked about a potential conflict in their legislation, Speier told reporters that she and Gillibrand — who lead the House and Senate Armed Services panels that focus on military personnel issues — are "working closely together" and called their bills "quite similar."
"We certainly feel very strongly that these cases have to be taken out of the chain of command," Speier said.
"All in all … they're compatible pieces of legislation," Speier added.
Connor O'Brien contributed to this report.
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