- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2019

There’s already one clear winner as the Democratic House and Republican Senate prepare to do battle over their differing versions of the proposed 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — women in the ranks.

Following a push from lawmakers to level the playing field, the House’s version of the NDAA, approved Friday, includes provisions that would require the Marines to merge divided basic training programs; expand access to contraception and family planning services; bar the Pentagon from conducting business with companies that do not have a sexual harassment policy; and establish a new system to encourage targets of sexual assault to report the incident to their military survivors.

The House bill “contains historic provisions that will enshrine the values of equality, opportunity and accountability into law,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, the California Democrat who sponsored several of the amendments.

The Senate’s version of the defense policy bill includes language directing the Pentagon to “take a look at alternative systems in preventing sexual assault.” Like the House bill, the Senate measure includes multiple provisions to improve the military’s response to sexual misconduct and the Pentagon’s system of reporting an incident within the military.

In a win for female Marines, the House voted to require the branch to end the sexual segregation of boom camp, as all the other military branches have done.

The Marine Corps notably has the fewest number of women in the service compared to others and has seen cultural issues which Ms. Speier’s office says “could be alleviated by signaling that all Marines are equals from day one of training.”

Although the Marine commanders told the AP they did not see any problems with the integration, the move did not spark internal momentum to change the existing policy of keeping male and female platoons separate.

In the wake of a damning Pentagon assessment that detailed the staggering levels of sexual assault in the military, the House also added a measure that gives victims in the ranks the freedom to report sexual assault “without fear or receipt of discipline” if they were in possession of alcohol, accused of consensual fraternization, or seen in an off-limits area.

The current policy does not protect victims in these circumstances, which experts say is often a reason many victims do not report sexual assault.

Another amendment would establish an independent authority who would be responsible for prosecuting special victims cases, aimed at giving lower ranking service members who have been sexually harassed or assaulted access to a more fair military justice system.

Sexual assaults in the military increased dramatically over the past two years. In May, a disturbing Pentagon report found that instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in the armed forces increased by about 38% from 2016 to 2018.

The most recent numbers are the highest since 2012, when 26,000 military men and women reported unwanted sexual contact. It’s also significantly higher than a decade ago.

In 2010, there were 19,300 reported instances of sexual assault. Female troops between the ages of 17 and 24 are at the highest risk of assault, the study showed.

While the House’s NDAA stops short of entirely criminalizing sexual harassment under military law — a fact that critics say makes it much harder to crack down on those who create a negative culture inside units — the latest developments highlight a significant step toward eradicating the problems.

With both the $733 billion House bill and $750 billion Senate bill separately approved, the two sides of Capitol Hill will meet in the coming weeks to negotiate the final legislation.

“By passing this bill, Congress has shown that we can make our country stronger and safer by incorporating progressive values into our laws and policies,” Ms. Speier said.

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