Senator Joni Ernst in April talking about military sexual assault. (Photo from Ernst’s office.)

Proposed changes in how the military investigates serious crimes are now included in a larger bill senators will vote on in the coming weeks, but Iowa Senator Joni Ernst says she’s worried the plan will be scaled back as the bill works its way through congress.

“I’m really on pins and needles right now because we know that the reform has been long overdue,” Ernst says.

Earlier this year, Ernst endorsed a plan to no longer have military commanders oversee sexual assault investigations. The plan also calls for all felony cases involving members of the military to be handled by trained military investigators, outside of the chain of command. Those provisions are now included in a military spending bill that has cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee. Ernst is a member of the panel.

“The House and the Senate will have our versions of the Defense Authorization Act and then they come together in a conference committee before the end of the year,” Ernst says. “Hopefully it stays in through both the House and the Senate.”

For years, Pentagon leaders resisted changes in how criminal cases are handled in the military’s justice system, but President Biden and the secretary of defense have recently said they support having independent special prosecutors in the military investigate sex crimes.

“But the bill we have, it removes all serious crimes from the chain of command, so it would include crimes like murder, child pornography,” Ernst says, “so we think it’s really important that we include all serious crimes.”

Ernst says commanders would still oversee investigations that are directly related to military service, like allegations of dereliction of duty or being AWOL — absent without leave. In 2013, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley signed onto New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand’s bill to remove felony investigations from the military chain of command.

“Happy that Sen Gillibrand was able to get our military justice improvement bill included in the…Defense Authorization Act. Now we hv to ensure it stays in the bill,” Grassley tweeted recently. “…Our troops/military sexual assault survivors deserve a fair system.”

Ernst, a sexual assault survivor, endorsed the proposal this year and the plan now has 66 co-sponsors in the Senate. A recent Pentagon report found thousands of soldiers are sexually assaulted each year, but few file reports and only 350 cases led to an alleged perpetrator being prosecuted in the military justice system.