WASHINGTON (CN) — Sending the $768 billion defense authorization bill to the Senate for a vote later this week, House lawmakers have voted in a budget that is notable both for its long-awaited changes to sexual assault investigations in the military and for formally shifting the security threat focus away from the Middle East to placing an emphasis on China.
The legislation is renewed every year to keep the Department of Defense funded and signal U.S. military priorities. After months of political fights and dropped amendments, this year's version of the defense authorization act focuses on reforming military personnel policies and cementing U.S. goals to focus on perceived military threats in the Indo-Pacific region. Though it has drawn criticism from lawmakers who wanted a larger overhaul of the military justice system, it passed the lower chamber Tuesday with broad bipartisan support.
Among other changes, the legislation establishes a special prosecutor who will decide whether to pursue charges of sexual assault, murder, kidnapping and child pornography — authority that was previously given to military commanders.
The bill also makes sexual harassment a crime in the military justice system and requires all claims to be handled by an independent investigator.
Survivors of sexual assault would also be notified of any actions the military takes against their attackers.
"It's so much more than anything that's happened before," Malia Du Mont, a former strategist for the secretary of defense, said of the reforms. "There's been a lot of bureaucratic inertia and opposition to any major change — especially because this affects how commanders manage their troops, which is kind of a sacred thing in the military, so the fact that this has passed through is really tremendous."
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, spearheaded the push for reforms to how the military handles sexual assault cases, but her proposal to give a special prosecutor authority over a larger swath of crimes and sole authority to convene court hearings did not make it into the final bill, raising concerns about the influence military commanders still hold over if and when service members are charged with crimes.
"This disregards the calls of service members, veterans and survivors who have fought for an impartial and independent military justice system," Gillibrand said in a statement about the nixed provisions.
Du Mont echoed the senator's disappointment but tempered it with hope for the future. "It's unfortunate that more didn't happen with what Gillibrand was advocating for, but it's already such a success to get this new special prosecutor in that I think it's going to create some momentum, and I don't think this is the end of the story in terms of military justice reform," she said.
Other substantial reforms also ended up on the cutting-room floor as House and Senate leaders hashed out a bipartisan deal.
The Congressional Black Caucus had pushed for the legislation to address disparities in how Black service members and service members of color are treated in the military justice system, but no specific policies were included in the bill.
“There’s a disproportionate, not just number of cases brought against minorities, but also there is concern that there’s a variation in the level of punishment received based on minority status," said Katherine Kuzminski, senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Representative Anthony Brown, a Democrat from Maryland, had also proposed an amendment to track and deter extremism within the military that did not make it into the final bill.
Brown voted against the bill in protest of the scrapped provisions.