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.
Congress oversees the bureaucracy and ensures that laws go into effect properly through a process known as oversight. Committees regularly hold hearings and launch investigations to check for abuse and waste.
Example: Some of the most memorable moments in political history have come as a result of oversight. In the early and mid-1970s, both houses had committees investigating the Watergate scandal, which eventually pushed President Richard Nixon out of office. Americans closely followed similar hearings about the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the main investigative agency of Congress. The GAO regularly examines federal expenditures and activities on request from Congress. GAO reports are usually nonpartisan and well researched. These reports often form the basis of new legislation and at times spark public outcry.
Members do a variety of things to please and aid their constituents. Sometimes they support legislation that will help the district. Members also have their staff engage in casework, which helps constituents with individual problems from recommendations for military academies to signing up for Medicare. Part of casework involves acting as an ombudsperson, a person who investigates complaints against government agencies or employees. To stay in touch with their constituents, members spend as much time in their districts as possible, performing community service, attending the openings of new businesses, and meeting with local leaders to discuss key issues. The way members of Congress behave at home is known collectively as their home style.
Members of Congress help their constituents by getting money for their districts through legislation. The federal government, for example, may fund a highway project or a research project at a local university. The term pork refers to federal money that is funneled into a specific legislative district. A member of Congress will often insert pork into a bill in order to gain another member’s support or to win votes back home.
Example: An infamous example of pork in 2006 was the so-called bridge to nowhere, a bridge in a remote part of Alaska (to be built with federal money) that would be used by very few people. The bridge was inserted into the budget by Alaska senator Ted Stevens.
Congress also engages in public education, informing the public about issues and what Congress intends to do or has done about them. Members of Congress keep in touch with their constituents and educate them on the issues through mailings and websites. Congresspeople present various opinions on such issues as gun control and abortion, which allows the public to become better informed.
Congress picks the issues about which to debate and act on through a process known as agenda setting. Agenda setting informs people about which issues are most pressing to members of Congress and lets them know what Congress wants to do about those issues.