The Job of a Legislator

Just what is the job of United States Senators and Representatives? What is the purpose of Congress? In an era of extremely low public trust in Congress and its members, this has become an important question.

It seems that many people, including many elected officials, no longer understand the purpose of Congress, or the job function of a congressman or congresswoman. The job of a congressmember is not, as Matt Gaetz asserts, to go on TV.[1] Today, we will try to cut through the noise and confusion. To understand the real purpose of a legislator, we need to go back to the U.S. Constitution.

The job of a legislator is quite simple. It is to legislate. The legislature legislates, meaning that it makes laws or repeals old laws. As the world has grown more complex and the role of government has expanded, Congress has outsourced much of that lawmaking power to executive agencies who make regulations. Yet regulations can only do so much and the ultimate duty of lawmaking still resides in Congress.

For a variety of reasons, including because the entire American electorate cannot gather in a room to debate an issue, we elect legislators to debate solutions to the problems we face. Some problems do not require a government solution, while others do. And because people disagree over where that line is drawn, and over what type of solution to implement, we have political debates. The role of a legislator is not actually to pass laws. The role of a legislator is to debate the passage of new laws, and to vote on the passage of new laws, but not necessarily to vote in favor of a particular new law. We elect congressmen and congresswomen to debate issues and solutions to problems. If they believe that a bill meets an important need, then they vote to pass it.

Voters elect two senators and a representative to represent their interests. Some see that role as that of a delegate (which means voting exactly as a majority of constituents want), while others see the role as that of a trustee (meaning members of Congress can vote their conscience if they believe their constituents are wrong). Either way, the job primarily involves debating issues and voting on bills that may or may not become law.

Other Job Duties:

Although it is not in the Constitution, members of Congress do have fundraising responsibility. This is partly imposed on them by their party leadership and partly by the necessity of getting reelected. While many would argue that this duty has encroached upon their more important duties, and now takes up far too much of their time, it is a legitimate part of the job for senators and representatives. While it may take away from time spent on more important tasks, unless they do not plan to stay in Congress or do not want to be on important committees, members do need to spend at least a little time fundraising.

A large part of legislating is committee work. Party leadership controls committee assignments, which they can use to force members to fundraise. Because the entire House and Senate cannot investigate every issue deeply, members work together in smaller committees to become experts on Foreign Relations, or Armed Services, or Appropriations. Committees investigate issues, draft and vote on sending bills to the full Congress, and then explain their bills to the full House or Senate. Committee work is the nuts and bolts of legislating. It includes actually researching and learning about the intricacies of issues and the bills drafted to solve them. One would hope that congressmembers would at least have read the bills that pass their own committees – alas, sometimes this is not the case.

Perhaps one of Congress’s greatest derelictions of duty in recent years has been the failure to pass budgets and appropriations bills on time, leading to continuing resolutions and stopgap measures to prevent government shutdowns. This happens almost every fiscal year. The appropriations process is long and complex, but it used to happen on time every year. Now, it rarely happens either on time, or in the right way. Typically, we get a last-minute omnibus bill instead of 12 smaller appropriations bills passed earlier in the year. One could reasonably argue that constitutes failure to do a job. If Congress passed no other bills, made no new laws, and did nothing else, they should pass the budget and the appropriations bills on time every single year.

Members of Congress also perform constituent services, including advocacy, solving local problems, hearing complaints and concerns, and even nominating students for military academies, like West Point. Much of this work is done by the staff, but elected officials have a role. If you are wrongly imprisoned, you can ask your representative or senators to help get you a pardon.

If they want to be reelected, members also need to campaign. Many will also campaign on behalf of other members of their party. Campaigning goes beyond fundraising to include town hall meetings, canvassing for votes, visiting state fairs, going door to door, running ads, and even debating opponents. We can argue about how much time should be spent campaigning and how much should be spent legislating, but if members want to continue to legislate, they need to stay in office, which requires some campaigning.

The work of a congressmember includes fundraising, campaigning, and constituent work, but the primary job duty is to work on legislation. All committee work, debate, budgeting and appropriations, voting, research, and negotiation falls into this category.

Conclusion – Congress is an Institution:

The purpose of senators is to serve the American people in the institution of the Senate. The purpose of representatives is to serve the American people in the institution of the House. These institutions were formed for a purpose. Congress was formed for a purpose. The people within Congress are there to serve that purpose. One problem in our society today is that people exploit institutions to serve themselves, rather than serving the purpose of the institutions they inhabit. Politicians do this by using Congress as a platform to perform.[2] Rather than performing public service, they use publicity to further their own interests (fame, fortune, power, prestige, or cultural and political agenda). A common denominator in the politicians that MITM seeks to oppose is that they use Congress, and by extension the American People, rather than serving Congress and the American People. Our politics will only become healthy once our public officials return to their purpose. Congress will only work once we understand what the job of our legislators entails and hold them to that. We will only trust Congress once it starts functioning as a healthy institution again. And that will only happen when the members of that institution serve it, instead of using it to serve themselves.

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