On January 3, 2023, the newly elected 118th Congress gathered on Capitol Hill ready to work. For the U.S. Senate, all went as planned and new members were sworn in that same day, with the Democrats holding a slim majority. For the U.S. House of Representatives, things did not go as smoothly.
The Republicans won the midterm elections with a narrow majority in the House, but internal party opposition prevented them from electing a Speaker of the House until after numerous concessions and fifteen floor votes. On January 7th, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was finally sworn in as the 55th Speaker of the House.
With Speaker McCarthy in office, Congress raised the debt ceiling, required the director of national intelligence to declassify information related to the origins of COVID 19, and avoided a government shutdown, just hours before existing funding for the government would have expired on September 30th.
Only three days later though, Republicans, who were frustrated that Speaker McCarthy struck a deal with Democrats to avoid the shutdown, voted him out of the Speaker’s office on October 3d, the first time that has ever happened to a sitting Speaker.
Three weeks, three nominees, and four votes later, the House elected Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) as the 56th Speaker of the House on October 25th. Since his election, Speaker Johnson has helped pass a bipartisan temporary spending bill that extends appropriations deadlines into early 2024 and the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The House has also started impeachment proceedings against President Joe Biden.
While there have been notable legislative successes, the 118th Congress has struggled to gain political consensus on most issues, including recently on those involving funding for the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel, federal appropriations, and border security. In total, only 22 bills were signed into law this year.
Congress is now in recess. Both chambers will be back in session on January 9, 2024, with a lot of unfinished business ahead of them. Funding the government will be one of their first priorities with the potential for a partial shutdown on January 19th and a full shutdown on February 2nd looming if Congress does not pass the required appropriations bills or another continuing resolution.
Despite the political highs and lows for which the First Session of the 118th Congress will be remembered, the ABA worked hard to advance policy issues of interest to our members and saw progress.
In the criminal justice arena, more than two dozen reform bills have been introduced to, among other things, reduce or eliminate incarceration based solely on one’s ability to pay a fee or fine, end mandatory and unjustifiably lengthy sentences as a primary response to crime, promote primary reentry strategies for those leaving prisons, and reduce the impact of a criminal conviction on a person’s ability to find work, housing, and become a productive member of society.
In the immigration arena, the House and Senate each introduced bipartisan bills to establish specialized dockets for the adjudication of unaccompanied children’s cases in immigration court to enhance fairness and due process. There also is a bill pending in the Senate that would provide counsel for unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings.
On the appropriations front, the ABA, while acknowledging recent increases in appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation and for programs to end gender-based violence, will advocate in the new year for more funding in these areas and for federal defender programs, court funding, and foreign aid, among other things.
Other ABA priorities will include monitoring the potential impacts of artificial intelligence developments on the legal profession, identifying student debt relief opportunities, and continuing to prevent legislative or agency regulation of the legal profession that would undermine the confidential lawyer-client relationship.
The ABA advanced important policy goals to increase access to justice and pursue the interests of the legal profession this past year, but we need to do more during the Second Session to help get legislation and appropriations passed. Presidential elections scheduled for November 2024 may make progress difficult, but the ABA Governmental Affairs team is ready for the challenge and already working with ABA leaders and entities to identify opportunities for progress as they arise.
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