What Does The Congress Do Anyway

The duties carried out by a Member of Congress are understood to include representation, legislation, and constituent service and education, as well as political and electoral activities. The expectations and duties of a Member of Congress are extensive, encompassing several roles that could be full-time jobs by themselves. Despite the acceptance of these roles and other activities as facets of the Member’s job, there is no formal set of requirements or official explanation of what roles might be played as Members carry out the duties of their offices. In the absence of formal authorities, many of the responsibilities that Members of Congress have assumed over the years have evolved from the expectations of Members and their constituents.

Upon election to Congress, Members typically develop approaches to their jobs that serve a wide range of roles and responsibilities. Given the dynamic nature of the congressional experience, priorities placed on various Member roles tend to shift in response to changes in seniority, committee assignment, policy focus, district or state priorities, institutional leadership, and electoral pressures. In response, the roles and specific duties a Member carries out are often highlighted or de-emphasized accordingly.

Although elements of all the roles described can be found among the duties performed by any Senator or Representative, the degree to which each is carried out differs among Members. Each Member may also emphasize different duties during different stages of his or her career. With no written requirements, each Member is free to define his or her own job and set his or her own priorities.

This report is one of several CRS reports that focus on congressional operations. Others include CRS Report RL34545, Congressional Staff: Duties and Functions of Selected Positions, by R. Eric Petersen; CRS Report RL33209, Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources, by R. Eric Petersen; and CRS Report RL33213, Congressional Nominations to U.S. Service Academies: An Overview and Resources for Outreach and Management, by R. Eric Petersen.


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