Joni Ernst breaks a promise to military victims of sexual assault

“Alarming rates” of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, most of which go unpunished, are an ongoing scandal. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has been the leading voice in the Senate for reforms to address the “vastly underreported” problem. Last year, Iowa Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both supported a bill Gillibrand introduced, which would have taken sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.

While former Representative Bruce Braley served in the U.S. House, he repeatedly introduced legislation aimed at reducing rates of sexual assault in the military and removing “decisions over investigating and prosecuting sexual assault allegations […] from the normal chain of command.” Braley’s guest at the 2014 State of the Union address was Service Women’s Action Network executive director Anu Bhagwati, whose group “has been at the center of the national effort to reform the military’s handling of military sexual assault.”

As the Republican nominee facing Braley in last year’s U.S. Senate campaign, Joni Ernst talked a good game on this issue. After disclosing that she had faced sexual harassment while serving in the Iowa National Guard, Ernst promised to support reforms that would remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, even if she got “push-back” from Pentagon leaders or GOP Senate colleagues. She also said ensuring “sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted […] should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”

Last week, Ernst had a chance to walk the walk. Instead, she helped kill Gillibrand’s amendment to the 2016 defense authorization bill, going back on her campaign pledge and casting a rare vote in opposition to her fellow Iowa Republican Grassley.

Follow me after the jump for more background and details on Ernst’s broken promise.


The scale of the U.S. military’s sexual assault problem is far greater than the number of crimes reported or prosecuted.

From October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011 the Defense Department reported that there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault. But according to Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary, the actual number of assaults edged closer to 19,000 just in the last year [2012].

A 2013 decision by an Air Force general to overturn a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction increased the political will within Congress to tackle the problem. Although a majority of U.S. Senators including Iowa’s Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley backed real reform in 2014, Gillibrand’s bill fell victim to Senate procedures that require a 60-vote supermajority for most legislation. Grassley’s floor statement in support of that failed bill is worth reading. Bleeding Heartland posted the full text here; key excerpts:

[W]e are past the point of tinkering with the current system and hoping that does the trick.

We have had promises about tackling the problem of sexual assault within the current system for years and years but the problem isn’t getting any better.

We don’t have the luxury of time to try some new reforms of the current system and hope that has an impact.

What’s more, the current system appears to be part of the problem.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that.

We know from a recent Defense Department report, 50 percent of female victims stated they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their report.

Seventy-four percent of females and 60 percent of males perceived one or more barriers to reporting sexual assault.

Sixty-two percent of victims who reported a sexual assault indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation.

We can talk about protections for victims and we can enact more protections as we did in the National Defense Authorization Act.

But, the fact remains that the current structure of the Military Justice System is having a deterrent effect on reporting of sexual assault.  If sexual assault cases aren’t reported, they can’t be prosecuted.

If sexual assault isn’t prosecuted, predators will remain in the military and that results in a perception that sexual assault is tolerated in the military culture.

That destroys morale and it destroys lives.

If an enemy tried to sew [sic] that kind of discord among our military, we wouldn’t tolerate it, but we are doing it to ourselves.

The men and women who have volunteered to place their lives on the line deserve better than that and our military readiness demands it.

Taking prosecutions out of the hands of commanders and giving them to professional prosecutors who are independent of the chain of command will help ensure impartial justice for the men and women of our armed forces.

I know some senators will be nervous about the fact that the military is lobbying against this legislation.

I have the greatest respect for our military leaders, but Congress has given the military leadership more than enough time to try and fix the current system.

We can’t wait any longer.


Sexual assault in the military became a salient issue in Iowa’s U.S. Senate election last year, partly because of Braley’s work on the problem and partly because Ernst’s military service featured prominently in her campaign’s image-making. In August, Braley ran a television commercial touting his efforts to protect women in the military from domestic violence and sexual assault. In response, Ernst focused on the issue during a speech to the Iowa Federation of Republican Women’s Diamond Anniversary dinner in Sioux City.

“This legislation must ensure that sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted,” Ernst writes in a draft of her Sioux City speech, provided to TIME by her staff. “This will not be an easy challenge. I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and Pentagon. However, this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”

Ernst isn’t endorsing Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, her staff says, which would refer all sexual harassment cases to the Judge Advocates General Corps, but she pledged to work “with Senator Gillibrand and other Senate leaders in seeking bipartisan support for new legislation.” Ernst would refer all reports to an independent investigator outside of the chain of command and if criminal charges are warranted, then those cases would be referred to “an independent, experience prosecutor.”

In an interview with the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs, which led to a flattering front-page story, Ernst stressed her commitment to solving this problem.

“It is quite possible that I’m going to get push-back from people that I hope to have as Republican colleagues in the Senate, and from military leaders also, but I’m not doing this to go against them,” Ernst said. “What I am doing is saying: ‘This is a problem. It has not been resolved in the past couple decades. If we were handling it properly in the military, we would not have the issues that we have today.’ ” […]

Right now, sexual assault cases are investigated independently, but commanders handle the decision on whether to prosecute. Ernst wants the entire process to be independent of the chain of command for either the accused or the accuser. […]

“This really comes down to making sure we are protecting our men and women who work in uniform,” Ernst said. “It’s not a partisan issue.”

She said that as a college student, she volunteered at a women’s shelter in Ames, wearing a beeper to respond to help women hospitalized for sexual abuse or assault.

“This is an issue that I take personally,” she said. “I’m very passionate about this.”

Promising to stand up for women even in the face of opposition from her own party and military commanders, Ernst bolstered her campaign’s relentless branding of her as a “mother, soldier, and independent leader.”


Fast-forward to last month, when Gillibrand’s office released a review of sexual assault report files at the four largest U.S. military bases. The report is both essential and sickening reading. Excerpts from the conclusions (emphasis in original):

The True Scope of the Violence in Military Communities is Vastly Underreported, Potentially by as Much as Half at Some Bases. Two significant – but overlooked – categories of survivors in military communities are the civilian women living near military communities and non-military spouses of service members, which total over half, or 53%, of the cases analyzed. […]

Nearly 73% of military spouses who accused their servicemember spouses of sexual assault declined to pursue charges. Of the 22 sexual assault incidents reported by spouses, in only one case did the military command proceed to trial, and in that case the husband was acquitted of the sexual assault. The military justice system is clearly failing these military spouses. […]

Nearly Half of Survivors Who Took First Step Toward Justice by Filing Unrestricted Report Within the Military Justice System Later Declined to Move Forward. […]

Many Charged with Sexual Assault and Rape Get Reduced Charges and Receive Much Lesser Punishments. The Absence of Justice Allows Predators to Continue to Remain Free and Potentially Commit More Crimes on Civilians and Servicemembers. […]

An alarming number of cases appear to go cold when the accused and alleged survivor provide conflicting statements as to whether the sex was consensual. In particular, if the two parties have a previous sexual history, the alleged assailant is more likely to be believed. […]

The findings contained in this report are consistent with the previous reporting of mishandled sexual assault cases at military bases in Japan. This suggests a large scale systemic failure and a culture that protects the accused and ostracizes the survivor at the expense of the public and the servicemembers’ safety. The lack of an effective military justice system, with the commander making untrained evidentiary decisions, not only threatens the men and women serving in uniform, but also, this data clearly shows, threatens the civilian population. This further demonstrates the need for an independent, trained military prosecutor, unbiased by the chain of command, making evidentiary decisions about felony-level crimes.

Every American should be outraged by the culture that lets thousands of sexual predators get away with their crimes at the expense of women who are either serving their country, married to military personnel, or living near military installations.

Human Rights Watch released a separate report last month focusing on “Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military.” Click through if you have the stomach to read horrifying statistics and brutal anecdotes about the retaliation service members (men as well as women) routinely go through after reporting a rape or sexual assault. Here’s one eye-opening paragraph:

Military sexual assault survivors almost never see a remedy for these actions, for which virtually no one is held accountable. Military surveys indicate that most respondents-62 percent-who experienced unwanted sexual contact and reported it to a military authority faced retaliation as a result of reporting.2 In other words, military service members who reported sexual assault were 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation for doing so than to see their offender, if also a service member, convicted for a sex offense. Just 5 percent (175 out of 3,261) of sexual assault cases in the Defense Department’s jurisdiction investigated with a reportable outcome in FY 2014 led to a sex offense conviction.3

Keep in mind that the number of investigated cases represents only a small fraction of military sexual assaults.

As the Senate prepared to debate the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2016, Gillibrand promised to keep pushing for reform:

“Survivors will not be able to get the justice they deserve until we change all of this business-as-usual climate without any real accountability and create a professional, non-biased and independent military justice system,” Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Gillibrand should have been able to count on both senators from Iowa, as she did last year. But when her amendment came up for a vote on June 16, it fell ten votes short of the 60-vote threshold. Grassley voted for the amendment, but Ernst voted against it.

Reading how Ernst explained herself to Iowa journalists on June 18, I wondered what happened to the woman who claimed to be “passionate” about taking on military sexual assault.

Ernst says a recent survey shows military personnel are expressing more trust in their commanding officers. “There is progress being made. Should there be a time in the future that we need to make a more difficult decision by taking it out of the chain of command, we will face that at that time,” Ernst told Iowa reporters today in a conference call.

Ernst led the way for other recent reforms, including protection against retaliation for those reporting assaults and independent counsel for alleged victims. “They do have somebody independent that they can go to…to talk through the moves that need to be made as far as what available resources are out there and how to go about the prosecution process,” Ernst said.

Give me a break. Neither the Gillibrand review nor the Human Rights Watch report contain any evidence that “There is progress being made” on military sexual assault. Some broad survey suggesting growing trust in commanding officers will be little comfort to the women and men who are victimized and either suffer in silence or face retaliation for reporting a crime.

As mentioned above, a front-page Des Moines Register story by Jennifer Jacobs provided great cover for Ernst when military sexual assault became an issue in the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign. I didn’t see a news report in the Register last week about Ernst’s vote against the Gillibrand amendment (please correct me if I am wrong), but columnist Rekha Basu held Ernst accountable in her opinion piece for the Register on June 19. After contrasting Ernst’s campaign promises with her vote on the Senate floor, Basu wrote,

Her communications director, Brook Hougesen, denies that Ernst’s position has changed. Responding to an email, Hougesen said reducing and eliminating military sexual assaults remains a priority. She pointed to a statement Ernst made last August that if internal reforms already in place at that time hadn’t made “significant progress in the next few months,” she would work with bill sponsor Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other Senate leaders to support new legislation. “The data shows that progress is being made and she believes that more time is required for these new provisions to take full effect,” Hougesen said.

In fact the sexual assault rate remains exactly what it was in 2010, according to Gillibrand. “We see an average of 52 new cases every day,” she said in a speech earlier this month, accusing the military of spinning the data to cover up the lack of progress.

“Despite the much-touted reforms that made retaliation a crime, the Department of Defense has made zero progress in improving on the 62 percent retaliation rate from 2012,” she said. What’s more, a Human Rights Watch investigation found the department couldn’t offer a single example of someone being disciplined for retaliating.

Who would have guessed that Grassley, a man who has never served in the military, would have a better understanding of the problem than Ernst, a woman with two-plus decades of military service?

What a disgrace that Iowa’s self-styled “independent leader” backed down less than a year after proclaiming, “this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”

Braley was serious about helping victims of sexual violence in the military. But as the saying goes, elections have consequences.

P.S.- Of the senators running for president, Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republicans Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted for the Gillibrand amendment to the defense authorization bill. Republican Lindsey Graham voted against it, and Marco Rubio missed the vote.  

  • This difference is curious

    I take for granted that her base is the same as Grassley’s.

    I might venture that the patriarchal proclivities of the christian right possibly could make them the only group to prefer sweeping sex harrassment under the Orderly Room floor, and that demographic is strong for both our senators. I can’t imagine any other group who would be against this.

    • I would guess

      lobbyists for the military persuaded her to change her position on the issue. But no one can speak to her thought process.

      • Yes,

        “. . . her thought process.”

        Right there you boiled down to exactly what has bothered me about her since she arrived onto the scene. To me, everything she says seems disconnected and even shallow.

        Not one of Iowa’s greater intellects.

  • Chain of Command

    Senator Ernst when wearing the uniform is a commander of a unit. Voting for the amendment would in fact lessen her contol/power for everything that unit is slated to perform. A units failure or success is totally placed upon the commander of that unit. Either someone from the military did in fact get to her, she lost her nerve, or felt she had cover from Senator McCaskill’s vote which was also no. Which ever one it is she needs to be called out on this.  

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