The thing which appeals most to me about being a Member of Congress is the individuality, since upon election to Congress, Members typically develop approaches to their jobs that serve a wide range of roles and responsibilities. The U.S. Constitution establishes qualifications for Representatives and Senators, but it is silent about the roles and duties of an individual Member of Congress. The roles and duties carried out by a Member of Congress are understood to include representation, legislation, and constituent service and education, as well as political and electoral activities. In a typical week, Members may oversee constituent services in the state or district, travel between their state or district to Washington, DC, to participate in committee activities, greet a local delegation from the home state, meet with lobbyists, supervise office staff, speak on the floor, conduct investigations, interact with the news media, and attend to various electoral duties, including fundraising, planning, or campaigning for election.
The job of a Member of Congress has been characterized as “a license to persuade, connive, hatch ideas, propagandize, assail enemies, vote, build coalitions, shepherd legislation, and in general cut a figure in public affairs.” In the absence of such formal authorities, many of the responsibilities that Members of Congress have assumed over the years have evolved from the expectations of Members and their constituencies.
Benefits and limitations of a Member of Congress Office
First, I would like to emphasize the one thing that might dissuade me from serving the office in matter, and that is the political polarization that pervades this institution. Of course, polarization is nothing new in American government and it existed to varying degrees throughout the country’s history. However, there are now a number of factors, both social and structural, that deepen traditional political divisions in Washington and serve to undermine not only political cooperation and compromise, but also basic comity and even civility. As a result of deep political hostilities, members of Congress have come to consider themselves politicians first and legislators second. As Gibson notes, “it should not be surprising that long‐time members of Congress talk nostalgically about “the old days” when friendships between Democrats and Republicans were commonplace, not the exception but the rule.”
Furthermore, institutional changes in the Congress have diminished the importance of committees and individual members and centered power in partisan leadership, which speaks against the factor mentioned at the beginning of this paper and the individuality I emphasized. The principal effect of all these causes has been to increase polarization and to give the country political parties increasingly locked into ideological rigidity and less willing to compromise with the other side. Political success – winning elections and gaining power in Washington – seems now of greater importance to each of the parties than the practicalities of governing. Politics today encourages confrontation over compromise.
Nevertheless, I will now focus on the reasons which make this office appeal to me. Originally, the most common expectations of Members were to represent the people and district according to the wishes of the majority; to solve problems in the district; and to keep in contact with the people in the district through regular visits and meetings in the district and polls or questionnaires. Other public expectations included regular attendance in legislative sessions and voting on legislation.
A Member of Congress typically carries out some of the resulting duties personally, and delegates others to congressional staff who act on his or her behalf. The staff may work in the Member’s individual office, on committees to which the Member is assigned, in offices connected to leadership posts the Member may hold, and in the separate political and reelection operations the Member may maintain. In this understanding, the Member sets broad policies to fulfill his or her duties, and the appropriate staff act to carry them out. Many scholars of Congress see these Member choices and delegation arrangements as dependent in part on their goals. Generally, these observers suggest that Members pursue three primary goals: gaining reelection, securing influence within Congress, and making good public policy. The relative priority a Member may assign to these goals can affect a wide range of choices regarding a congressional career, including: the emphasis given to different roles and duties; activities in the Washington, DC, and district or state offices; staffing choices in Member and committee offices; and preference for committee assignments. It can also affect a Member’s approaches to legislative work, constituent relations, media relations, party issues, and electoral activities.
Representational activity is the role which can make any Member feel important, since the principle of representation is the basis of democracy. A system of representative government assumes that the will of the people is consulted and accommodated when making public policies that affect them. Consequently, representational activity is present in all of the roles of a Member of Congress. Representational activity is seen in the legislative process, constituent service, oversight, and investigation duties that Members carry out. In Congress, Members are elected to represent the interests of the people in their congressional district or state. In addition, they represent regional and national interests in matters which might come before Congress. Styles of representation differ. Some Members might view themselves as responding to instructions from their constituents – sometimes called the “delegate” style. Others might prefer to act upon their own initiative and rely upon their own judgment – sometimes called the “trustee” style.
Another very important role is legislation. In developing and debating legislative proposals, Members may take different approaches to learn how best to represent the interests of their district or state, together with the interests of the nation. This may require identifying local, national, and international issues or problems which need legislative action, and proposing or supporting legislation which addresses them. Throughout the legislative process, Members of Congress routinely attend committee hearings and briefings, hold meetings and conversations with executive branch officials and with lobbyists representing various interested groups, and have discussions with congressional colleagues. In addition, many Members receive staff briefings based on a broad range of sources, including congressional support agencies, local and national media outlets, specialized policy-oriented literature, and background material on legislative issues, among others. An important venue for congressional activities is the committee, through which much of the work of Congress is organized. Committees typically are the first place in which legislative policy proposals receive substantive consideration.
There is, finally, the constituency service role, which is closely related to the representative and educational roles of a Member of Congress. Frequently, when constituents or local firms or organizations need assistance from the federal government, they contact their Representative or Senators. Members then act as representatives, ombudsmen, or facilitators, and sometimes as advocates, in discussions with the federal government. Assistance on behalf of firms and organizations may involve providing letters and other communication in support of grant or other applications for federal benefits. The constituency service role also allows a Member the opportunity to see how government programs are working, and what problems may need to be addressed through formal oversight or legislation.
The divisions described as the main limitations of a Member of Congress office surely inhibit legislating and attacking the country’s problems. But, I assume that many Members believe it works politically for their party and that if they are seen cooperating with the members of the other party, they will be made to pay for it personally in their next primary election.
However, it is appealing and challenging that, with no formal or definitive requirements, each Member of Congress is free to define his or her own job and set his or her own priorities. Each Member may also emphasize different duties during different stages of his or her career as other conditions of the Member’s situation change. For example, some may focus on outreach, constituent service, and other state or district activity. Others may focus on developing influence in their chamber by developing policy expertise or advancing specific legislation. No Member, however, is likely to focus on any one role or duty at the exclusion of another, because the extent to which a Member successfully manages all of those roles is the basis on which his or her constituents may judge the Member’s success.
- Gibson, C. (2011). Restoring Comity to Congress. Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Discussion Paper Series, Shorenstein Center.
- Hamilton, L.H. (2004). How Congress Works and Why You Should Care. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Mayhew, D. R. (2000). America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Petersen, E. (2012). Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress: Brief Overview. Congressional Research Service. (Available at: www.crs.gov)
- Serra, G., Moon, D. (1994). Casework, Issue Positions, and Voting in Congressional Elections: A District Analysis. The Journal of Politics, vol. 56, pp. 200-213.
 Petersen, E. (2012). Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress: Brief Overview. Congressional Research Service, p. 1. (Available at: www.crs.gov)
 Mayhew, D. R. (2000). America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 9.
 More in: Hamilton, L.H. (2004). How Congress Works and Why You Should Care. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
 Gibson, C. (2011). Restoring Comity to Congress. Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Discussion Paper Series, Shorenstein Center, p. 2.
 Serra, G., Moon, D. (1994). Casework, Issue Positions, and Voting in Congressional Elections: A District Analysis. The Journal of Politics, vol. 56, pp. 200-213.
 Petersen, E. (2012). Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress: Brief Overview. Congressional Research Service, p. 6.