WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Wednesday moved to tie military sexual assault policy reform to next year’s defense funding, linking two of the Pentagon’s biggest headaches in a single legislative package.
A day after top military brass were called before the Senate to address a perceived indifference toward sexual assault problems, members of the House Armed Services Committee opened debate on their annual defense authorization bill, which includes stricter punishment for rapists and less discretion for commanders reviewing sexual assault crimes.
Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the problem “a stain on the military right now” and a “deep cultural problem” that legislation alone won’t fix.
Debate over specific steps was expected to stretch late into Wednesday evening, but lawmakers in both chambers are considering limiting military authorities ability to dismiss or reduce court martial convictions and expanding resources to help victims of such attacks.
Pentagon officials have already promised the latter but oppose the former, saying such sweeping changes to military justice rules could have wide-ranging, unintended consequences.
The annual authorization bill sets policies and priorities for the Defense Department, along with outlining anticipated spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Lawmakers began debate on the annual defense appropriations bill, the other half of the Pentagon’s budgetary legislation.
Both plan for a 1.8 percent pay raise for troops next January — higher than the White House’s 1 percent raise proposal — and would drop Pentagon plans for another base closure round to create future savings.
But neither the $638 billion authorization bill nor the $512 billion appropriations bill (which differ due to war funding issues and outside agency overlaps) deal with the reality of sequestration, deep automatic budget cuts mandated by Congress two summers ago.
Since then, defense leaders have lamented that arbitrarily trimming up to 10 percent from military agencies to meet deficit reduction goals is bad policy, and pleaded with lawmakers to reverse the cuts. They have not, despite repeated promises to do so.
Defense department civilian employees face 14 days of furloughs to help budget officials reach the first round of sequestration cuts for fiscal 2013. Pentagon leaders have warned that cuts in future years could be more severe, limiting training and readiness of troops.
But the White House defense budget request this spring was sent to Congress about $30 billion above the fiscal 2014 sequestration level, gambling that a divided Congress will finally find a solution to the issue.
On Wednesday, Smith said he worries that administration officials and lawmakers still haven’t grasped the reality of the deep automatic budget cuts, leading the department towards another fiscal panic if a last-minute solution doesn’t emerge.
Committee members are expected to finalize both budget bills in coming days, and forward them to the full House for votes in late June or early July. The Senate still has not offered any public drafts of its defense budget plans, and the two sides likely won’t settle on a final bill until this fall.
That could be too slow a process for many critics of the military’s handling of sexual assault issues.
In recent weeks, the military has endured harsh criticism over an increase in estimated cases of assault in the ranks and a series of high-profile, high-embarrassment incidents involving service personnel — including the arrest of the head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention efforts on charges of drunkenly groping a woman.
White House, Pentagon and congressional leaders have framed the problem as one of national security, jeopardizing the readiness and morale of troops.
Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said lawmakers have no choice but to take action “protecting (servicemembers) from the unacceptable risk of sexual assault.”