In the wake of a report last month detailing multiple failings in how the Coast Guard handles sexual assault and harassment allegations, a pair of U.S. senators are pushing for a new oversight committee to push the service towards improvements.
The measure — the Coast Guard Sexual Misconduct Prevention Act — is sponsored by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Both women have been advocates for reforms in how sexual harassment cases are handled in the Defense Department, but Ernst said many of those new policies don’t directly affect the Coast Guard, since it is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“The Guard, it falls outside of armed services jurisdiction,” she said. “But we still have to protect the young men and women that are that are serving there.
“I want somebody that is a subject matter expert that can get in there, talk to leadership, talk to the coasties and understand what's going on. And then look at how we change that culture. They would be the ones making those recommendations.”
A congressional investigation released in December stated that service leadership needs “significant improvement” in handling such cases, noting multiple instances where senior officials failed to hold subordinates accountable for incomplete investigations into harassment and bullying claims.
This week, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Michael McAllister released a service-wide message reminding members vowing to “eliminate any trace of a culture that is tolerant of sexual harassment or assault” and promising punishment for any servicemember engaged in such behavior.
Ernst said such internal reviews aren’t enough to ensure the problem is being handled, but she is also reluctant to mandate new penalties or reporting policies for the service without first having a better understanding of the Coast Guard’s unique structure.
“We don't want to take a knee jerk reaction and say, we're going to pass this law and that's going to take care of these issues,” she said.
Instead, the proposed new advisory committee would include “experts in sexual assault prevention, suicide prevention, and the practice of facilitating change in the culture of large organizations” to analyze potential problems with Coast Guard practices.
No hearing has been scheduled on the proposal. Ernst and Duckworth had a number of sexual assault provisions included in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill, and next year’s budget policy legislation may ultimately be the most likely vehicle for adopting the new proposal.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.