Watch VICE's new special, A House Divided, Friday December 9 on HBO.
As the new VICE documentary A House Divided shows, during the Obama administration, the relationship between the White House and Congress was essentially adversarial. Barack Obama would want the House and Senate to pass a bill in order to deal with a problem—the question of what to do with people who came to the country illegally as young children, say, or the plague of shootings that have hit America—and the House and Senate would not pass the bill. Sometimes Obama would take executive action to get around them, as he did with new rules protecting millions of undocumented immigrants. But he couldn't do everything he wanted; it's impossible for a president to enact an assault weapons ban, for instance, with the stroke of a pen.
As the years went on, the acrimony between the legislative and executive branches only seemed to deepen, especially as more conservative and combative Republicans took office after winning elections on the backs of promises to fight Obama every step of the way. The government was shut down at times because some House Republicans thought it would be a path to defunding Obamacare; there were multiple battles over raising the debt ceiling, previously a routine matter.
With Donald Trump's election, however, that discord is likely to disappear, or at least radically diminish. Republicans already controlled both chambers of Congress, and now the entire federal government will be singing the same song of tax cuts, reduced regulations, less action on climate change, the dissolution of Obamacare, stricter border control, restrictions on abortion, and other items on the Republican wish list. It's true that there are some issues that Trump and his Congress will disagree on, and it may not be easy for them to enact certain big-ticket items, especially with Senate Democrats holding enough seats to block bills by way of the filibuster. But Trump will be able to cancel Obama's executive orders using his own authority, and there will likely be a host of new laws coming out of DC that will affect the lives of everyday Americans. Some people may lose health insurance. Others may pay less in taxes. Social Security benefits may be slashed. It might get easier to carry a gun across state lines, and harder to get a work permit if you are an immigrant. Things will change, and probably in major ways.
Which things are changing and how they will change will be the focus of our new feature, Tracking Trump's Congress. This will be a running list of all the pieces of legislation that have become law and Trump's executive orders, along with brief descriptions of their effects. (In format, at least, it will be similar to VICE's Mass Shooting Tracker, which is wrapping up at the end of 2016.) The 114th Congress, which has been in office since January 2015, enacted 248 bills that became law. Some were major news events, but many received less media attention than the average Trump tweet. A new law requiring Veterans Affairs to upgrade its crisis hotline—signed by Obama on November 28—didn't garner many headlines, for instance.
Well, we'll be compiling all of them, and working to translate the sometimes wonky, complex issues that bills deal with into plain English. And because executive orders have become increasingly important, we're going to include them on the list as well. In a separate weekly column, we will recap the major pieces of legislation and directives issued by Trump, and also look at some of the more influential bills winding their way through Congress.
The ways Washington, DC, works or doesn't work have been the subject of wide-ranging debate among journalists, political scientists, and legislators themselves. But, for the past several years, the average person has been able to get away with mostly not thinking about the nation's capital, as mostly what it did was get in its own way. Starting on January 20, when Trump is sworn in as president, that's going to change—it's important that we all start paying attention to the federal government, because it isn't going to be ignoring us.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter, and check back here on January 20 when we launch our new column Tracking Trump's Congress.