April 18, 2017 under Policy, Advocacy & Research

What Can Happen When Unintended Consequences Aren’t Considered

By Jennifer Jones Austin

Good leaders control for consequences they intend; great leaders control for the consequences they intend and the ones they don’t intend.” These were words my father expressed when speaking on leadership. Democrats and Republicans would have benefited had they applied these sentiments to their decisions when considering the nominations of federal judges and Supreme Court justices.

Two weeks ago we witnessed the further destruction of any semblance of bipartisanship within the United States Senate when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell triggered the “nuclear option”, thereby eliminating the 60-vote majority threshold that had been needed to end a filibuster and bring forth a vote to move the actual vote for a Supreme Court justice to the floor. Now, a simple majority of only 51 votes is required. It bears noting that this was not the first time the nuclear option was employed, as the Democrats utilized it in 2013 when then Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, triggered this option to push through judicial and executive branch nominees of President Obama. The Democrats would argue they had no choice, but they failed to realize the consequences.  Now the Republicans have done the same, and it is not a stretch to believe their actions too will have unintended, potentially damaging consequences in the future.

The Judicial Branch is one of America’s three branches of government, and the Supreme Court is the most esteemed and influential institution within the Judicial Branch. We rely on the Supreme Court to set the tone and provide direction to ensure freedom and equality in America. Earlier this month, Senator McConnell’s act of employing the nuclear option ended all debate between the Democrats and the Republicans concerning Supreme Court Justice Nominee Neil Gorsuch. He was quickly confirmed as a Justice to the Supreme Court with a final vote of 54-45 on Friday, April 7, 2017, and administered the oath of office on Monday, April 10, 2017. Yesterday, April 17, 2017 was his first day on the bench of the highest court in the land.

Are there possibly still more unintended consequences? Now that the 60 vote threshold has been diminished for even Supreme Court Justices, there is reason to be concerned, as Senator John McCain asserted when he stated, “We are entering into an era where a simple majority decides all judicial nominations, we will see more and more nominees from the extremes of both the left and the right, I do not see how that will ensure a fair and impartial judiciary. In fact, I think the opposite will be true and Americans will no longer be confident of equal protection under the law…What we are poised to do…will have tremendous consequences and I fear that someday we will regret what we’re about to do. In fact, I’m confident we will.” Unintended consequences may very well extend to the legislative and policy agenda of the US Senate, and in the future, as some legislators speculate, could result in major legislation requiring only a simple majority to pass.

In our country’s history, some of the most influential legislation was decided with bipartisan support.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act are two such pieces of legislation with bipartisan support that changed the course of this nation toward a path of equality and freedom.  We know the adverse effects of gridlock on American society when Congress loses the will to work together for solutions that will benefit most and harm none. Now, with the nuclear option applicable to all judicial nominations and the concern that it could be activated on actual legislation, there may soon be little incentive for working across party lines.

At FPWA we advocate for policies that benefit the most vulnerable in our society. We understand the importance of rigorous debate in bringing about thoughtful and the least harmful solutions. FPWA supports Senators Collins and Coons’ petition to the entire Senate body to maintain bipartisanship when it comes to the legislative agenda. We implore the rest of the US Senate to honor this request, as it’s never too late to demonstrate great leadership.

Jennifer Jones Austin is the CEO and Executive Director at FPWA and is co-host of a segment about poverty and national policy for the nationally syndicated radio show, Keepin’ It Real with Rev. Al Sharpton, which airs Thursdays at 2:00 pm ET.