With the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the United States’ next president, and continued Republican control of both houses of Congress, the country could be in store for a wave of legislation and policy changes making life more difficult for millions of people, both inside and outside the nation’s borders. President Trump could revoke access to life-saving healthcare to 22 million people, deport millions of undocumented immigrants, increase the pace of devastating climate change, shift the Supreme Court in an even more conservative direction, and start or escalate major wars.
But most of that will take time, and will require congressional approval. So how much damage could President Trump do on the first day, immediately after his inauguration on January 20, 2017? Here's what could happen.
Before Inauguration Day
We’ll have some idea of how aggressive President Trump plans to be well before Inauguration Day. Congress is set to reconvene on January 3, 2017, two-and-a-half weeks before Trump and Pence are sworn in. While that’s not a lot of time to set up for Trump’s agenda, relatively straightforward legislation could be pushed through for Trump to sign immediately after he takes the oath of office.
There’s just one hurdle in the way of Republicans: the filibuster in the Senate. Under current Senate rules, most bills cannot be voted on unless 60 senators first vote to end debate (a process called “cloture”). This means Republicans will need the votes of at least eight Democratic senators to pass most laws.
Except maybe they won’t. The filibuster is a creation of Senate rules rather than constitutional law, and can be abolished by the Senate at any time. And, because Senate rules from one session of Congress do not automatically carry over to the next, Republicans could abolish the filibuster with only 50 votes (with Vice President Pence breaking the tie), something well within their power. Adopting Senate rules that abolish the filibuster would be an early sign that Republicans intend to wage an all-out war on President Obama’s legacy, while leaving the filibuster in place could demonstrate an intent to reach out to and work with Democrats (or at least to blame Democrats for not enacting portions of Trump’s legislative agenda that are also unpopular with congressional Republicans).
The first casualty after Trump’s inauguration is likely to be the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In January 2016, Congress passed a bill that would have repealed Obamacare, but did not go into effect until 2018 (unsurprisingly, the bill was vetoed by President Obama). Republicans in Congress could quickly re-submit and pass the same bill, with only minor amendments to change the date in which repeal would go into effect. (Most commentators suspect Congress would allow a two year transition period—ending December 31, 2018—so that 22 million potential voters were not left without insurance in the months before the 2018 midterm elections.)
Because the ACA was considered a budget bill, it was (and its repeal would be) subject to a filibuster exception called reconciliation, meaning that it could be scrapped with a simple majority vote. The calendar might be tight, but congressional Republicans could likely squeeze a bill through in time for President Trump’s inauguration, allowing him to sign a repeal of Obamacare as his first official act in office.
With Congress having failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill over the past decade, Obama’s immigration policies have been implemented through executive orders, and could thus be undone by Trump upon taking office. Two policies in particular are at high risk of being repealed on Trump’s first day in office: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program for undocumented immigrants with citizen children. Trump has stated that he will repeal the two programs “immediately,” making it more a question of when rather than if.
While President Trump will be limited in his ability to restrict abortion rights within the United States—at least until there are changes on the Supreme Court—he will be able to immediately restrict access to abortion overseas by reinstating the so-called Mexico City Policy.
The policy, announced by then-President Ronald Reagan at a United Nations conference in Mexico City in 1984, prohibited non-governmental organizations that received aid from the U.S. government from performing or promoting abortion, even if done with non-U.S. funds. Under the rule, an organization receiving even a cent from the U.S. government could not mention abortion as a family planning option.
The Mexico City Policy is one of the few executive orders to be routinely repealed and reinstated with shifts in party control; Bill Clinton repealed the policy upon taking office, George W. Bush reinstated it, and then Barack Obama repealed it again. There is every reason to believe Trump will promptly reimpose the policy, though he might wait a couple of days after his inauguration for the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, on January 22.
The Supreme Court
One of the easiest things President Trump could do on Inauguration Day is nominate a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly in February 2016. Given that Trump released a long list of potential nominees in September and the vacancy has now been open for more than 10 months, Trump might act quickly to name a replacement. But, because Trump’s nominee will have to be sent to the Senate for confirmation, we could easily be looking at the summer before the Supreme Court is back up to its full bench of nine justices.
Although Trump is likely to be a disaster for the environment, his initial impact will be slightly more limited. The Environmental Protection Agency’s rules-making process is quite onerous and can take years, meaning it will be difficult for Trump to repeal Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan quickly, and more dramatic changes—such as removing the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide entirely—would take legislation from Congress, which could take much longer and would be subject to Democratic filibusters (if the filibuster survives). One thing Trump could do immediately is withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate action.
Finally, Trump would have broad powers to dramatically change the United States’ trade agreements, but even he might be unwilling to act so decisively so quickly. On his first day in office, Trump could provide the required six months notice of the United States’ withdrawal from NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. But Trump has emphasized renegotiating, rather than repealing, NAFTA, making this a significantly less likely possibility. Given Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric and tough negotiating style, however, there is a chance Trump could provide notice of withdrawal from NAFTA as a negotiating tactic to force Mexico and Canada to the table.
But even if Trump does not immediately withdraw from NAFTA or if Congress finds it more difficult to repeal and replace Obamacare than anticipated, Trump’s impact on the United States will be devastating from his very first day. Americans may find themselves waking up on January 21 wondering just what it was they voted for.
Charles Paul Hoffman writes about comics, pop culture, and the law. He enjoys talking about Michel Foucault and how culture constructs societal norms.