Congress has five main functions: lawmaking, representing the people, performing oversight, helping constituents, and educating the public.
The primary function of Congress is to pass rules that all Americans must obey, a function called lawmaking. Congress deals in a huge range of matters, from regulating television to passing a federal budget to voting on gun control. Many of the bills considered by Congress originate with the executive branch, but only Congress can create laws. Parties, interest groups, and constituents all influence members of Congress in their vote choices, and members also compromise and negotiate with one another to reach agreements. A common practice is logrolling, in which members agree to vote for one another’s bills. For more on lawmaking, see “The Legislative Process” section later in this chapter.
Congress represents the people of the United States. Members serve their constituents, the people who live in the district from which they are elected. The old adage that “all politics is local” applies to Congress: Members must please their constituents if they want to stay in office, and every issue must therefore be considered from the perspectives of those constituents. There are three theories of representation, or how people choose their representatives: trustee representation, sociological representation, and agency representation.
According to the theory of trustee representation, the people choose a representative whose judgment and experience they trust. The representative votes for what he or she thinks is right, regardless of the opinions of the constituents. Because the constituents trust their representative’s judgment, they will not be angry every time they disagree with the representative. A constituent who views his or her representative as a trustee need not pay close attention to political events. For key issues, the constituent likely monitors the representative’s votes, but for other matters, the constituent likely trusts the representative and does not monitor votes too closely.
According to the theory of sociological representation, the people choose a representative whose ethnic, religious, racial, social, or educational background resembles their own. Because the views of people with similar backgrounds tend to be similar, the representative will act in ways that suit his or her constituents. Thus, constituents do not need to monitor their representatives too closely.
Representation According to the theory of agency representation, the people choose a representative to carry out their wishes in Congress. If the representative does not do what the constituents want, then the constituents “fire” the member by electing someone else in the next election. Those who view their representatives as agents tend to closely monitor their representatives because they must know what the representative does in order to keep him or her accountable. This theory is also known as the instructed-delegate representation.