Lawmakers have advanced legislation to stem the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the military.
The bill approved by a House panel Wednesday authorizes changes to military law that would strip commanding officers of their authority to unilaterally change or dismiss court-martial convictions in major cases, such as rape and assault.
Republicans and Democrats backing the revisions believe they will lead to a cultural shift in the armed forces that encourages more victims to step forward.
The bill also would impose harsher penalties on service members found guilty of sexual offenses by requiring that they be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
The chairman of the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, says the measures are significant and will lead to increased reports of sex-related crimes.
The moves by the subcommittee come two weeks after a Pentagon report released earlier this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes.
The report showed the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000, but they never reported the incidents. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to take more aggressive steps to curb sexual assault. But the new figures convinced lawmakers that military leaders have not done enough and that swift legislative action is needed to tackle the problem. President Obama has weighed in as well, declaring he wants to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault.
"I think the leadership of the military is confused," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who along with Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote several of the provisions before the subcommittee. "They believe as long as they have programs where they say sexual assault is wrong that they've done enough. No. They have to support the victim, and they have to support vigorous prosecution."
The proposed changes are backed by Republicans and Democrats. Once approved by the military personnel panel, the measures will be folded into the Armed Services Committee's broader defense policy bill for the 2014 fiscal year, which the full House will consider in the coming weeks. Separately, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up a series of sexual assault prevention measures next month. A final plan will eventually be produced after any differences between the House and Senate are resolved.