The North Bend Eagle


 

Senate debates defense reforms

Senator Deb Fischer
Released 11/27/13

Recently, the United States Senate began consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act. This legislation has been passed each year for the past 51 years to set spending priorities and policy for our military.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I voted to advance the current bill in May. At that time, I mentioned some outstanding issues that still needed attention through floor debate and amendments, including overall spending levels. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to allow an open amendment process. After a week on the Senate floor, senators have debated and voted on just one issue.

While I believe a robust amendment process is important, it is especially necessary now as new security challenges have emerged since the Committee adopted the legislation. For example, the United States is now working with other nations to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, on which I serve as Ranking Member, oversees the Department of Defense’s (DoD) efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We’ve been working on modifying the defense bill to allow DoD, which has great expertise in dismantling these weapons, to help remove the threat posed by Syria’s chemical stockpiles.

Our proposal allows sexual assault victims in the military greater input in prosecutions.

My colleagues and I also offered amendments directly related to STRATCOM’s mission, including future nuclear arms reductions and treaty compliance. Moreover, the NSA’s surveillance programs, Iran sanctions, and U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt and Pakistan are all worthy of debate.

I’m proud to report that the Committee did include a series of historic reforms to combat sexual assault in our military. The current bill provides victims with a Special Victims Counsel to make certain they are receiving unbiased, independent legal advice. It strips commanders of the ability to overturn jury convictions and makes retaliation against victims a crime. It also requires dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted of sexual assault and provides critical civilian oversight.

The Committee also adopted a measure I offered with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to heighten the caliber of DoD sexual assault prevention officers and it passed an amendment I cosponsored with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to bolster victims’ rights – a critical, but sometimes overshadowed area of this debate.

Despite these significant changes, I joined Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in introducing a new amendment to make the bill even stronger. Our bipartisan proposal allows victims greater input in prosecutions, eliminates the use of the “good soldier” defense in most cases, and extends protections to military service academies.

Much attention has also been paid to another proposal to remove sexual assault offences from the military chain of command. Senator McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, described this approach as “seductively simple,” as it is a politically popular approach. Its simplicity, however, cloaks a host of complex policy problems.

In addition to technical concerns, I do not agree with the underlying goal of removing commanders from the military justice system. We know that commanders pursue courts- martial when their legal advisors recommend against doing so. We know, based on the experiences of our allies, that removing commanders from the judicial process does not achieve the desired results. And we know that commanders have risen to the challenge in the past to confront contentious issues within their units, including integration.

These facts lead me to conclude that the changes in this bill, combined with the reforms included within our amendment, will best serve the interests of victims and punish those responsible.

The Senate adjourned without reaching an agreement on how to proceed with amendments, putting ultimate passage of this critical legislation in jeopardy. As I mentioned, there are plenty of good ideas worth debating and voting on – we just need a chance to legislate. I’m tired of watching time wasted, and I am eager to get to work on these important issues.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process, and I’ll visit with you again next week.

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