Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, one of Congress’s largest roadblocks during former attempts at passing military sexual assault legislation, is now set to vote on an influential, Democratic-led bill that would bar military commanders from involvement in prosecuting service members accused of sexual assault.
During a Thursday press conference, the Republican admitted that she never wanted to take the decision “out of chain of command,” but will vote for the measure, led by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, because of her own experiences with sexual assault, her daughter’s chronicles from West Point, and a 2020 report out of Fort Hood, Texas that outlined a culture “that was permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
Ernst, a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, in 2019 held up negotiations for the Violence Against Women Act over the “boyfriend loophole” and for many years has evaded Gillibrand’s attempts at moving this military sexual assault legislation forward—measures that experts say would “usher in the biggest change to military rules since the repeal of the ban on service by gays and lesbians in 2010.”
“It has been an evolution. And I’ve made it very clear that I have been very torn about this in the past … taking this decision out of the chain of command, I said I would always keep an open mind. And if we didn’t see things change, then perhaps it would be time to make those changes,” Ernst said at the press conference, joined by Sens. Gillibrand, fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Ted Cruz and others.
“And so I have kept an open mind. And Kirsten knowing that has been relentless … But we’ve discussed it. And then after the Fort Hood incident that we saw earlier and the report that came out of that, it just showed such a horrible command climate, completely up and down the chain of command. And if there is someone that is thinking about perpetrating an intimate crime like sexual assault or domestic violence—if they’re even thinking about that, and they know that there’s a bad command climate … they’re likely to become that perpetrator.”
I'm live now with @ChuckGrassley, @SenJoniErnst, @SenBlumenthal, @SenTedCruz, @SenMarkKelly, @ProtectRDfnders & @IAVA to introduce the #MJIIPA, our bill to secure justice for survivors of sexual assault & to help prevent sexual assault in our armed forces. https://t.co/c1RF7F3t6P
— Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (@gillibrandny) April 29, 2021
Sen. Cruz said during the press conference that Ernst’s cooperation on this bipartisan legislation is likely to bring some other Republicans on board.
“The fact that Senator Ernst is here today is a big deal. Senator Ernst has a lot of credibility on many issues, but particularly on this issue. With her life experience and passion, Senator Ernst coming today, I believe, changes the balance on this bill. Changes the momentum on this bill. And I’m going to predict, by the end of this Congress, we’re going to pass this bill. And it’s about damn time,” Cruz said.
New York Senator Gillibrand, who has worked with Ernst on a number of military justice and sexual assault-related pieces of legislation in recent years, also noted the importance of the Iowa lawmakers’ collaboration on the measure.
“Just as Senator Ernst told you. Just as she has given this detailed, in-depth consideration over many years, and that is what our colleagues have done because there is no progress. Truly, no progress. And so many indicators going in the wrong direction, and this most recent Fort Hood report—it’s just intolerable.”
by Isabella Murray
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