The first session of the 118th Congress achieved some notable legislative successes, but it has struggled to gain political consensus on most issues, including recently those involving funding for the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel, federal appropriations and border security. In total, only 34 bills were signed into law this past year—the fewest in decades, according to Axios.
The Republicans won the 2022 midterm elections with a narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, but internal party opposition prevented them from electing a speaker of the House until after numerous concessions and 15 floor votes. On Jan. 7, 2023, then-Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, was finally sworn in as the 55th House speaker.
With McCarthy as the House speaker, 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 Sept. 30.
But on Oct. 3, Republicans, frustrated that McCarthy struck a deal with Democrats to avoid the shutdown, voted him out of the speaker’s office, the first time that has ever happened to a sitting speaker. It took three weeks, three nominees and four votes for the House to elect Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, as the 56th speaker.
Since his election, 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 also voted in December to formalize an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden.
The U.S. Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority, faced challenges primarily revolving around members. On Sept. 22, Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, was indicted on bribery charges. Menendez, who temporarily stepped down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pleaded not guilty and said he will remain in office while he fights the charges.
In February, Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, took a three-month leave while he sought treatment for depression. And on Sept. 29, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California who was the oldest sitting senator at the time, died at age 90. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, appointed Laphonza Butler, then the president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee, to fill Feinstein’s seat.
While Congress struggled to pass bills, other historic milestones were achieved. The 118th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history, according to the Pew Research Center, and the number of women is at an all-time high.
The Senate also elected its first-ever female president pro tempore—Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington—the second highest-ranking official in the Senate. In the House, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, was elected as the first-ever Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress as the House minority leader.
Despite the political highs and lows of the first session of the 118th Congress, the ABA worked hard to advance policy issues of interest to our members and saw progress. Highlights include:
Criminal justice: 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.
Immigration: 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.
Appropriations: The ABA, while acknowledging recent increases in appropriations for the Legal Services Corp. and for programs to end gender-based violence, will advocate for more funding in these areas and for federal defender programs, court funding, and foreign aid, among other things.
Agency actions and executive orders: Additional victories were achieved through agency action and executive orders.
• On April 5, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved significant changes to the federal sentencing guidelines that, among other things, expand access to and eligibility for compassionate release for those being held in federal prisons. Then-ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross called for such changes in a March 10 letter to the commission, citing the ABA’s recently adopted Ten Principles on Reducing Mass Incarceration.
• In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration dropped blood donor restrictions that excluded people based on sexual orientation and replaced them with neutral ones that focused on specific risk factors. In March, Enix-Ross had sent a letter to the FDA supporting the proposed change, based on policy that was adopted in 2017.
• In late July, Biden ordered U.S. agencies to begin sharing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the International Criminal Court. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland expanded on the Department of Justice’s plans in an address to the ABA House of Delegates at the ABA Annual Meeting in August. The ABA had urged this in a letter to Biden on April 6 and in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 19.
In the new year
Both chambers returned to work Jan. 9 to tackle unfinished business. Funding the government was one of their first priorities to avoid a partial shutdown Jan. 19 and a full shutdown Feb. 2. Congress passed a second continuing resolution that retained the bifurcated structure of the last continuing resolution but extended the deadlines to March 1 and March 8.
CBS News and Reuters have stories.
The presidential election this November may make progress in the second session of the 118th Congress difficult. Nevertheless, the ABA Governmental Affairs team is well prepared for this challenge and is actively working with ABA leaders and entities to identify opportunities for progress.
Follow us on social media platforms @ABAGrassroots to learn more about significant legislative and governmental developments of interest to the ABA as they happen.
This report is written by the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.
“15 ABA advocacy wins of the 117th Congress”
“Significant advocacy successes for the ABA were achieved in the first session of 117th Congress”