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What to Expect from the Tax-Slashing, Wall-Building 115th Congress

The GOP is suddenly poised to get a lot done. What does that mean for the rest of us?

We're still a couple weeks away from Donald Trump being sworn in as president, but the Republican-dominated 115th Congress, which will be responsible for working with him to change the country, is already churning away. The House has, as of publication, passed nine bills and introduced more than 300 others, with GOP operatives laying the groundwork to muscle ahead on a number of Trump's campaign promises as well as long-standing conservative crusades. Intra-party disputes will likely be rife, even when it comes to major campaign promises. But overall, this looks to be a momentous legislative year—for better or for worse.

VICE will be tracking every piece of legislation passed by Congress and signed by Trump, as well as all of the executive orders Trump signed. Read more about that project here.

The most prominent piece of major legislation Congress is debating is the repeal of Obamacare—a reversal the GOP has been drooling over since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, and an item on Trump's own wish list. Numerous bills have been introduced to chip away at the healthcare system, the most extreme being two proposed by ultra-conservative Congressman Steve King of Iowa calling for a full and rapid repeal and a ban on the use of Obamacare-related Supreme Court decisions from being used as legal citations.

Right now, Republicans are focused on using reconciliation—a complicated process that makes it easier to pass budget-related items—to chip away at Obamacare. The problem, though, isn't tearing down what the Democrats built; it's assembling a replacement. Disagreements among Republicans over the second part of "repeal and replace" mean that we may not see real action on Obamacare, perhaps until just before the next presidential election. As of Thursday, sad-eyed House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated that the repeal of Obamacare would likely also incorporate an old GOP dream: defunding Planned Parenthood.

Beyond Obamacare, the 115th Congress has placed an early emphasis on axing regulations. The main strategy appears to be turbo-charging a 21-year-old law giving Congress oversight on rules recently adopted by federal agencies. The existing law can only be used on one rule at a time, but new legislation, passed in the House on Wednesday, would allow Congress to wipe out multiple regulations from up to six months ago in one go. This would give the GOP the ability to erase the achievements of the late Obama administration, and they're likely to target environmental regulations in particular.

Then there's the measure passed on Tuesday in a package of House rules reviving a practice from 1876, which fell out of use 34 years ago, allowing Congress to unilaterally slash the salaries of individuals or groups at federal agencies, or make targeted cuts on specific programs. Not only does this put the Trump regime's request for the names of individuals in the government who worked on climate science in a darker light, it empowers the legislature to neuter programs or agencies it objects to. (It's worth noting that there's another bill on the House floor to review the efficacy of federal agencies and enable the elimination of those deemed outmoded.) 

Unsurprisingly, there's also a coming wave of pro-Israel and anti-UN legislation on the docket, which will presumably dovetail nicely with Trump's own priorities. Further down the line is talk of building the wall via an April spending bill—a project that some Republicans think Trump could start on thanks to a 2006 bill authorizing the George W. Bush administration to build border fencing.

In total, these high-profile efforts would slash the size of government, embark on a major piece of spending, and likely make life much more difficult for those who depend on Obamacare and Planned Parenthood for healthcare. But all this is only a sliver of the more than 300 bills that have been introduced over the past three days.

Most of this is esoterica, like proposals dealing with local issues or memorials. (Republican Don Young of Alaska, proposer of about a tenth of the bills in the House at present, seems especially prolific on such legislation—and deeply concerned with seafood. Three of his resolutions relate to the control and labeling of genetically altered fish, likely to benefit Alaskan fisheries.) Other bits are housekeeping or ideological posturing with little future: Liberals have put forth a raft of boilerplate progressive proposals likely to die a slow death in this session. Conservatives, as usual, want to balance the budget, slash spending overall, and audit the Federal Reserve system.  

Some of this mess of bills merits greater attention, though, as it points toward likely future centerpieces of national dialogue. Proposals on tax reforms, from the repeal of the estate tax to the outright elimination of the IRS in favor of a national sales tax indicate that the GOP is still in favor of slashing taxes, even if Trump wants to spend a lot on his wall and an expanded military. In addition, more than a dozen bills are aimed at limiting immigration, whether by freezing refugee programs, penalizing countries that deport immigrants too slowly, or making it harder to legally bring in skilled foreigners indicate that we're in for a long and ideologically charged discussion that goes way beyond the wall.

We're also likely to see action, given the Trump administration's Second Amendment positions, on a measure gun rights advocates have been demanding for years: reciprocal concealed carry, which would require every state to recognize every other state's gun permits. (A proposal to eliminate the gun-free status of schools, which Trump has voiced broad support for, is also on the slate but a bit more marginal.)

As expected, there appears to be little in the way of legislation on criminal justice reform (formerly a rare area where bipartisanship seemed possible), climate change, or federal minimum wage increases. Liberals can introduce bills on those issues to make political points, but they don't have a chance in hell of passing the 115th Congress.

It won't all be smooth sailing for the Republicans, however. We've yet to see anything substantive on Trump's promised infrastructure program—likely because his reluctant allies in Congress are not nearly as hot to swing hammers as he is. Other internal tiffs will likely include debates over protectionist tariffs and Russian sanctions, both of which seem inevitable in the near future.

Still, barring extreme acts of self-sabotage, the GOP will be able to get a lot done in the coming year. Conservatives have spent years railing against environmentalism, the UN, Obamacare, and the few gun regulations the US has. We're probably going to find out what's going to happen if all those things go away. 

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.