Since 1789, over 12,000 individuals have served as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. Nowhere is there a job description for serving in the nation's legislature. Each Member of Congress defines his or her own duties and sets their own priorities.
Making Decisions. Members are faced with hundreds of decisions in both recorded and unrecorded votes, on the floor and in committee, on matters large and small. Each decision balances conflicting views from private citizens, public officials, party leaders, and colleagues. These same groups, joined by the media, often criticize the results of decisions. But the burden falls to Members nonetheless -- to evaluate information, resolve conflicting advice, respond to constituents, participate in meetings, read and respond to mail, and take part in debate. To make progress, Members have to function in a variety of roles.
Making Policy. Members bargain with their colleagues to reconcile differing interests in order to create policy. They stay informed about national and international events by reading national newspapers and news magazines, watching television news and magazine shows, and listening to national radio programs. Members meet to exchange views and information with officials from the executive branch, lobbyists, businessmen, professionals and academics. Senators and Representatives also watch over the executive branch and regulatory agencies, a function called "oversight."
Committee Work. On average, a House Member serves on two committees, and a Senator serves on four. Members must develop expertise in the subject matters covered by their committee assignments. Committee work is diverse and includes such tasks as attending meeting, questioning witnesses, preparing amendments to bills, voting, and writing committee reports.
Floor Work. Members take part in floor debate. To do so effectively, they must know the substance of the issue under consideration and the parliamentary rules of procedure. They also work with colleagues of like interest to assemble enough votes to pass measures they favor. Members offer amendments to bills and debate the substance of amendments offered by others. They also cast floor votes on motions, amendments, and the question of final passage of legislation.
Running an Office. House Members manage up to 22 staff people in their Washington and district offices who provide administrative, legislative, press, constituency, and computer services. Senators manage an average of 38 staff people. The exact number funded depends on the size of the population of their state. A California Senator may have 70 staffers, while a Senator from Wyoming may have 27. Members must oversee their personnel and office expense allowances, and are held personally responsible for balancing those accounts at the end of each fiscal year.
Congressional Leadership. Party leaders in each chamber representing both parties try to persuade fellow Members to vote with their party. Leaders chair discussions with their party caucus to formulate a common position on pending issues. They take “head counts” to help predict the outcome of upcoming votes, and they negotiate agreements with the other party on when and how to consider specific bills on the floor. Leaders negotiate with the President or the other house of Congress as representatives of their chamber and speak on behalf of their party colleagues to the national press.
Local Representation. Each House Member represents about 650,000 people; a Senator represents the entire population of a state. They act as the liaison between their individual constituents and the businesses and industries they represent and the federal government. Members take soundings in their districts or states by visiting and by monitoring the local or state media. They are then equipped to evaluate the impact of legislation on their home base. Members alert their constituents to federal government actions and programs, too, answer requests for information about federal activities, provide assistance to constituents in obtaining Federal benefits and grants, and seek Federal funds for local projects and programs.
Getting Elected. None of the work described above can happen if a Member is not elected and, once elected, reelected.Members must organize and maintain a campaign organization for reelection to office and raise money for reelection by attending fund-raisers and staging special events. Members decide campaign strategies for media advertising, positions on issues, and public appearances.