“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”
–Will Rogers (1)
Being a senator or representative is a complicated job; they fulfill several roles at the same time. One obvious role is legislative, or law writing. Congress is typically fairly active in this regard, notwithstanding protestations of a “do-nothing Congress.” People who track Congress’ productivity make a distinction between substantive laws and ceremonial laws. Substantive laws are those that make a change in federal law or that authorize spending taxpayer dollars. Ceremonial laws are those that do relatively trivial things like rename federal buildings, award medals, or designate special days. In the past twenty years, Congress has passed between 200-450 substantive laws per session and between 50 and 250 ceremonial laws per session. (2) Sitting congressmen run for reelection based on their legislative records: What “good” bills did they push, and what “bad” bills did they oppose? They campaign on their legislative abilities, and local media report on the status of a candidate’s important legislation. The theory of representative democracy rests on the rather large assumption that voters assess legislation and reward those politicians who have voted “correctly” on the issues that matter to voters.
Representation is closely related to the legislative role. Congressmen are elected to represent their constituents’ interests. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Elections often do not convey the voters’ wishes clearly to the politician. If a politician wins with 53 percent of the vote, they cannot be certain from those results what the voters want them to do. That is why politicians are fond of polls and focus groups conducted by survey-research organizations. In addition, congressmen can access other information sources by reading local newspapers, conversing with lobbyists, talking to elites in the district, and soliciting constituent views during town meetings. Also, the representative’s role is to decide what kind of representation is best. Should the politician be a delegate, who is bound to vote the way constituents want? We saw before in our substantive representation discussion that ordinary people want Congress to act in their interest. But what if constituents advocate a policy that their representative or their senator considers unwise? The other possibility is to be a trustee, a representative who is directed by their own judgment rather than their constituents’ views. This can be politically risky if the politician votes in direct opposition to what the majority of his or her constituents want. But this is what James Madison was counting on when, in Federalist #10, he endorsed representation in a large republic. He wrote that such representatives “may best discern the true interest of their country,” and that their “patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” What do you think? Should a member of Congress be a delegate or a trustee? Who is more likely to assume the delegate roll—representatives or senators?
Another important congressional role is to perform constituent service, which is often referred to as casework. Are your veteran’s benefits caught up in red tape? Did you fail to receive the cost-of-living adjustment in your social security check? Did your community theater federal grant application get lost? Call your senator or representative’s office—staff people are there to help you if they can. Constituent service is a way for a congressman to garner good favor and positive news coverage in their district. Also, casework can serve to educate congressmen, particularly with respect to legislation and oversight. As one member of Congress put it: “You learn more about the job by doing constituent service work than anything else. . .It tells you whether or not the legislation is doing what it is supposed to do.” (3) Constituent service can also become controversial, however, especially when politicians are seen to be doing the bidding of well-heeled citizens or corporations, both of whom donate money to congressional campaigns and seem to have better access to congressmen than do ordinary citizens.
A final important congressional role is performing executive-agency oversight. Congress is interested to see how programs and regulations are actually working and what impacts federal laws have once they go into effect. So, standing committees and their subcommittees hold hearings to inquire into the operations of those executive agencies. Congressmen sometimes have an interest in serving the American public by exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in the executive branch. Often, those agencies’ heads are called to testify before a committee or subcommittee, and experts from the General Accounting Office—which is the investigative arm of Congress—testify about their investigations into a particular agency.
It is important to understand the perilous state of congressional oversight. Presidents from both parties as well as the intelligence agencies have resisted Congress’ efforts to get the information it needs. With respect to presidents and other executive officials, there is a clear tension between congressional oversight and what is known as executive privilege. Although executive privilege is never explicitly mentioned in the constitution, presidents have long held that they are entitled to withhold from Congress certain executive branch documents and the transcripts of deliberations within executive agencies. They also say that executive privilege allows them to defy congressional subpoenas to testify before oversight committees. We’ll talk more about executive privilege when we get to the presidency section of the text.
- Quoted in Robert G. Kaiser, Act of Congress. How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Page xii.
- Drew Desilver, “A Productivity Scorecard for the 115thCongress: More Laws Than Before, But Not More Substance,” Pew Research Center. January 25, 2019.
- Sarah J. Eckman, Constituent Services: Overview and Resources. Congressional Research Service. January 5, 2017. Page 1.