As the United States rings in a New Year, it also welcomes a new president. All eyes are trained on Washington in anticipation of what President-elect Donald Trump will tackle in his first 100 days in office. Trump’s initial success will depend on how well he defines his own agenda and how he navigates the difference in details between his goals and the policy priorities of Congressional Republicans. Trump will also need to divide his political capital between the things his administration wants to do versus what it needs to do in the New Year.
Confirmation of the Cabinet
The consideration of a Cabinet nomination, while nominally about the qualifications of a particular individual, also serves as a proxy for a broader policy debate. For example, a significant portion of the debate over the next director of the Environmental Protection Agency will be about the Trump Administration’s position on climate change and whether the new regime intends to reverse Obama-era regulations implemented in the name of combating it.
The Senate confirmation process is time consuming and relies on building some amount of consensus to move quickly. However a recent change in Senate rules allows Cabinet nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority vote, so unless a nominee loses Republican support, he or she will be confirmed. For purposes of comparison, President Obama was first sworn-in to office in January of 2009 but his Cabinet was not fully in place until late spring of that year.
Supreme Court Nomination
Confirming a Supreme Court nominee in the Senate is often a highly partisan battle. The debate over the late Justice Scalia’s replacement has been fought for nearly a year already, the result of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision not to allow a vote on President Obama’s nominee during an election year. President-Elect Trump will likely send a name to the Senate very soon after he is inaugurated and Senate Republicans will act quickly on the nomination. Democrats can delay the vote but unless the nominee is unusually polarizing, he or she is likely to be confirmed.
Federal law limits how much money the government can borrow. Congress suspended this “debt ceiling” as part of a budget deal negotiated in the fall of 2015. When the suspension expires on March 15, 2017, the debt ceiling will need to be raised or suspended again for the United States to avoid default. The Treasury Department often implements “extraordinary measures” to extend the deadline by a few weeks, but it cannot be delayed indefinitely.
Conservative deficit hawks may seek to pair any increase in the debt ceiling with cuts in spending. Social Security and Medicare have become the primary drivers of the nation's growing debt, but Trump signaled on the campaign trail his hesitancy to cut these popular programs.
Candidate Trump spoke often about reducing the federal regulatory burden, which he described as an impediment to growth. Many of President-elect Trump’s Cabinet nominees have since expressed a commitment to deregulation.
In December, a group of conservative House Republicans released a list of 228 rules and regulations that they believe should be tackled immediately. This list covers everything from trucking regulations to alternative-energy mandates to new school lunch requirements. Two of the top targets on the list are the Overtime Rule, which determines if employees are eligible or exempt for overtime pay; and the Fiduciary Rule, which expands the definition of "investment advice fiduciary,” involving stricter conflict-of-interest standards on a wide range of financial advisers.
Repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), i.e., Obamacare
Enactment of the Affordable Care Act is one of President Obama’s most significant legislative accomplishments. Its repeal was one of Donald Trump's major campaign platforms and is something Congressional Republicans have unsuccessfully attempted to do since its passage. However, now that Republicans will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they plan to make this goal a reality.
Politically, the largest hurdle for Republicans is not repealing Obamacare but replacing it. Many provisions in the ACA – such as preventing denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and children’s access to their parents’ coverage – have proven popular and will be hard to leave out of any new healthcare law. This puts the onus on President-elect Trump to formulate an ACA alternative that not only preserves the ACA’s most popular provisions for millions of Americans, but also meets with the approval of Congressional Republicans.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign gained early notoriety for his promise to secure the country's southern border and end illegal immigration. While advocates of stricter legal enforcement of existing immigration laws have been heartened by the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, President Trump will still face political and fiscal constraints as he rolls out his early immigration policies. He will have to consider how to fiscally and logistically “build a wall” along the southern border.
Although the Senate passed an immigration bill in the last Congress, it proved unpopular with voters and did not make it to President Obama’s desk. President Trump can act in some limited ways without Congress. Notably, he can reverse President Obama’s executive orders shielding and granting work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants who otherwise could face deportation. But funding any new significant measures would all require congressional action. Furthermore, Republicans will need to recruit at least eight Senate Democrats to overcome a filibuster and pass any legislative bill.
President-elect Trump has made clear his intention to pursue an infrastructure investment package as one of his first orders of business, but it appears Congressional Republicans want to take up infrastructure later this summer, after other must-pass fiscal matters have been addressed. An infrastructure package could garner bipartisan support, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already indicated he would welcome the opportunity to work with the new President in this area.
Major issues to address include how large the investment will be, whether the price tag will scare off fiscal conservatives, and how to pay for the new spending. For his part, Minority Leader Schumer has said he will oppose cuts to social programs to offset new infrastructure spending, and said he favors $1 trillion of direct federal funding, instead of private equity tax credits. Expanding the use of public-private partnerships remains on the table as a way to leverage private investment into public infrastructure.
Perhaps the most ambitious and impactful agenda item for the new administration and Congress is a massive overhaul of the U.S. tax system, an endeavor that could affect families of every income level and businesses of every size. It has been thirty years since Congress last enacted comprehensive tax reform of this scope and size.
Equally as ambitious is the timetable for passage of a tax reform package. The Trump Transition Team and Congressional Republican Leadership have privately laid out a schedule that puts tax reform legislation on President Trump’s desk by the summer of 2017.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have vowed to pass a tax package that is revenue-neutral, meaning the legislation will not add to the budget deficit. To accomplish this goal, every reduction in the corporate or individual rates must be offset by reducing or eliminating a deduction elsewhere, meaning negotiators will have to pick winners and losers.
The House Republican tax plan of 2016 appears to be a starting point. The plan would lower the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 33 percent and reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three. In a corresponding move, the plan would scale back exemptions, deductions, and credits. The plan maintains some of the more popular tax breaks, including the mortgage deduction and the charitable contribution deduction. Small business owners would get a special top tax rate of 25 percent. Investment income would be taxed like wages, but investors would only have to pay taxes on half of this income.
Both the President-elect and House Republicans have stated they want to lower the corporate tax rate and pay for it by scaling back tax breaks. President-elect Trump has stated publicly he wants to lower the corporate tax rate to 15 percent while Speaker Ryan has said 20 percent is more realistic.
One of the more controversial issues that will need to be tackled is the border adjustment tax. The issue pits exporters against importers. How tax reform legislation handles this open issue will be the subject of intense lobbying in the months to come.