Friday, March 07, 2014

When Democrats and Republicans alike prefer protecting the Pentagon to dealing with the plague of sexual assault in the military

By Michael J.W. Stickings 

Yes, once again, the Senate has acted shamefully:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came up short Thursday in her yearlong campaign to overhaul military sexual-assault policies, falling five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

The New York Democrat's bill, which would have removed the chain of command from prosecuting sexual assaults and other major military crimes, was derailed in the Senate on a 55-45 vote, closing out one chapter in a debate that divided the Senate but not along typical partisan lines.

Ten Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 2016 presidential hopefuls Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, backed Gillibrand's controversial chain-of-command bill. But that wasn't enough to overcome 10 Democratic votes against her, including prominent defense hawks like Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) also opposed the bill.

Things to note here:

1) This was a procedural vote, not an actual vote on the bill. But Gillibrand still got a majority of senators to support her effort, which is admirable. If the Senate were actually a functioning legislative body instead of a stage for partisan and ideological grandstanding, where all it takes is one member to shut things down with a filibuster, that is, if democracy actually mattered, the outcome would have been different.

2) Yes, this is one area where President Obama does need to show a good deal more leadership. His active involvement, as opposed to merely supporting Gillibrand in principle and hoping for the best, could have been the difference.

3) There is indeed an argument to be made for the military to be able to mange its own affairs, but it's a stupid argument that essentially holds that the military is off-limits to civilian oversight beyond the bare minimum and that the whole culture of the military is special and different and so not subject to the normal rules of society in any regard. This was basically the Republican position.

4) Yes, most Republicans voted against Gillibrand and so in favor of doing nothing to deal with the plague of sexual assault in the military. It's great that ten Republicans voted with the overwhelming majority of Democrats, but make no mistake, the main dividing line here was partisan.

5) Speaking of Republicans, doesn't it say something that even Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted with the Democrats on this one? Said Teabagger Cruz: "This issue shouldn't be political. It's about doing the right thing. It's about standing with the men and women in the military. It's about standing against sexual assault." Yes, of course, but what their break with their party really says is that they're thinking politically first and foremost, Cruz and Paul focusing on 2016 and realizing that the Republican brand is rather unpopular with women, McConnell running for re-election this year against a strong woman challenger in Kentucky. Don't believe for a second that they voted the way they voted as a matter of principle.

6) I continue to think that Gillibrand is one of the most exceptional members of Congress. She has overcome some initial reservations about her conservatism on some issues important in her district to emerge as a leading light among Democrats in the Senate and, I hope, a future presidential contender. She has been fighting an incredible fight against entrenched and powerful interests to try at long last to bring justice to the victims of sexual assault in the military. Hopefully, despite this setback, this so worthy fight isn't over.

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