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Biden signs defense bill that includes memorial, military justice reforms pushed by Ernst
By Tm Barton - Quad City Times
Dec. 27, 2021 7:46 pm
President Joe Biden on Monday signed into law a sweeping defense authorization bill that includes nearly $770 billion in spending for fiscal year 2022 and includes the beginnings of a national memorial to the war on terrorism that is backed by Republican members of Iowa’s delegation.
The bill — which provides a 2.7 percent increase in military basic pay — also includes changes to how the military prosecutes certain crimes like sexual assault, although members of Iowa’s GOP delegation says it does not go far enough.
“This bipartisan package will provide our troops with a much-needed pay increase and support they have long needed," U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, said in a statement. She had served for 24 years as a nurse
The package also includes several of Miller-Meeks' legislative priorities, including giving veterans and Gold Star families free lifetime access to national parks and public federal lands.
Also included in the package, according to Miller-Meeks, are measures "supporting the mental health of our soldiers, protecting the second amendment rights of veterans, and ensuring that women do not have to register for the draft."
The bill takes away the military's ability to prosecute serious crimes, like rape, murder, manslaughter, sexual assault and kidnapping. The bill also makes sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Mlilitary Justice.
Independent military lawyers will be tasked with prosecuting sexual assault cases, taking the decision out of the hands of the chain of command. However, military commanders would still have authority to conduct trials, pick jury members, approve witnesses and grant immunity.
In a statement, the president said the bill "provides vital benefits and enhances access to justice for military personnel and their families, and includes critical authorities to support our country’s national defense."
Iowa Republican U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, however, joined a bipartisan group of senators earlier this month criticizing the final version of the act, saying it does not go far enough to ensure that sexual assault survivors get justice.
Ernst, a survivor of sexual assault and commander in the Iowa Army National Guard, has long worked to combat sexual assault in the military. She and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., criticized the removal of provisions in the Senate version of the bill that would have shifted many responsibilities from the commander to a special prosecutor and expanded the number of crimes that would be handled by independent prosecutors.
"While I was encouraged with the momentous reform we made to the way the military prevents these abuses and holds perpetrators accountable, there is still work to be done," Ernst said in a statement earlier this month.
She, Gillibrand and Grassley vowed to try again to get a separate bill passed, pressing for a floor vote in the Senate that would strip commanders of oversight of all major crimes.
The bill signed by Biden also includes a provision spearheaded by Ernst to build a memorial on the National Mall honoring the veterans of the Global War on Terrorism. Ernst commanded 150 troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"In the wake of 9/11, millions of Americans answered the call to keep America safe, sacrificing life and limb to protect our homeland and to fight the enemies of freedom the world over," Ernst said in a statement Monday. "The time to honor these heroes of our nation’s longest war and their families is now, and there is no more fitting of a way to do that than with a memorial on our National Mall to serve as a permanent testament of their selflessness for generations to come."
Other provisions in the bill signed into law Monday, according to Ernst, require the Department of Defense to develop a strategy to evacuate men and women who have worked alongside U.S. personnel for the last two decades who still remain in Afghanistan. It also requires the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence to assess the involvement of the Chinese Communist Party in the origins of COVID-19, and prohibits the Pentagon from funding experiments by EcoHealth Alliance — the nonprofit that funneled U.S. tax dollars into the Wuhan Institute of Virology for coronavirus studies — in China.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.