WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Sunday said the outcry last year over an Army soldier's killing in Fort Hood, Texas helped generate bipartisan momentum for a bill she has sponsored to overhaul the handling of military sexual assault cases.
Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has led efforts to reform the reporting and prosecution of military sexual assault cases and other crimes since 2013, but it was not until earlier this year that she collected enough votes to cross the U.S. Senate’s 60-vote threshold to pass a bill. Sixty-one senators have signed on as co-sponsors of Gillibrand’s "Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act," all but ensuring its eventual passage in the Senate.
"The rate of sexual assault continues to climb, but the rates of cases going to trial and the rate of cases ending in conviction is going down," Gillibrand said during an appearance on CBS’ "Face the Nation." "So under no measure is it getting better."
Gillibrand, appearing alongside Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a co-sponsor of the bill who has helped rally Republican support for it, said the investigation into the killing of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen exposed a "toxic climate" on the Fort Hood Army base.
"So toxic that sexual harassment and sexual assault was not only rampant," Gillibrand said, "but it was a permissive atmosphere for that type of behavior."
Guillen, 20, went missing in April 2020 from the base. Human remains found in June near the Leon River in Bell County, Texas were identified as Guillen, authorities said at the time.
Federal and military investigators said last summer she was killed and dismembered by another soldier who later took his own life
Gillibrand’s bill would move the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assault allegations and other felony crimes from military unit commanders, to independent military prosecutors, a move she said will provide an "unbiased" authority to handle the case, and encourage more victims to come forward.
The proposal was crafted with input from Ernst, a former commander in the U.S. Army National Guard, who in 2019 revealed that she was the victim of sexual assault in college.
"Because of that Fort Hood report, the horrible behavior, the bad command environment, it has really been obvious to me that we need to make a very different change, " Ernst said.
The bill now has the support of 41 Democrats, 18 Republicans and two independents, according to Gillibrand’s office.
The issue has also been on President Joe Biden’s priority list. In his first week in office, Biden ordered the creation of an independent panel to review the Pentagon’s handling of sexual assault cases and whether the system needed to be changed.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, when asked Thursday, if Biden supported the bill, said it was "a welcome development," before noting that the White House was awaiting the results of the independent panel’s review.
"The President recently said, we have to have an all-hands-on-deck effort to end the scourge of sexual assault in the military, underlining that sexual assault is repugnant at any time, and that we have to uproot this horrible, long-standing problem," Psaki said.