Throughout my internship at the District Office of Congressman Peter Roskam, I have dealt with a wide range of activities, including constituents calling for a variety of different kinds of casework to be done, constituents calling to ask about the Congressman’s issue positions and to lobby him to take a position or change a current position that he holds, and at this particular time, with Congressional elections coming up very shortly in November, I can say I have had a unique experience regarding the relationship of the Congressional district office to the ongoing campaign and the upcoming elections. I think all of the experiences I have had working in Congressman Roskam’s office for an entire summer warrant an in-depth analysis, comparing the theoretical function and role of a Congressional district office to my personal experience and the way I perceived the district office to operate in reality.
To begin this essay, I just want to go over the theoretical underpinning of democratic representation, and the role of a member of Congress. It is generally recognized that in a democratic republic such as ours, when the people elect a representative, said representative has earned the right to act on behalf of his/her constituency as their agent in Congress, similar to the way an individual can contract a lawyer to act on his/her behalf in a court-of-law or otherwise. Obviously representation in government is different in that power (within the confines of constitutionality) is delegated by the body politic to the winner of an election, but the two concepts of representation are similar, and democratic representation works as if the body politic has contracted the winner of the election to act on its behalf in the halls of Congress and within the jurisdiction of a Congressional district in the case of a state representative.
Now, being a member of Congress has some fundamental duties that go along with it which are clearly laid out in Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress: Brief Overview as, “…representation, legislation, and constituent service and education, as well as political and electoral activities.”The way in which these functions are carried out may vary from Congressman to Congressman, but to make a generalization, if all these duties were carried out by a single individual, my guess is that nothing would ever get done in Congress because our representatives would be constantly burdened with taking care of their most rudimentary functions that they would have no time for the higher and more idealized functions of a Congressman, such as sitting on committee and passing legislation that reflects the views of constituents. This is precisely where the role of the Congressional office comes in. Our Congressmen must employ underlings to act on their behalf in somewhat of a corporate manner to fulfill their representative functions of performing constituent services, education, and political and electoral activities.
To hone-in more on the specific role of a Congressional office, I now would like to touch a bit more on the idea of “constituent services” provided by Congressmen, which is the primary business of the Congressional office as an interactive and receptive unit of representation. Of course, there are a wide variety of things a Congressional office can do for constituents and for their Congressman, and these offices are quite adaptive to different purposes, but I will focus mainly on the constituent services that I took part in during my internship. First-of-all, members of the Congressional office are employed “…to act as representative, ombudsmen, or facilitators, and sometimes advocates, in discussions with the federal government.”2 This includes, but is not confined to, outreach where members meet with groups and introduce the work of a Congressional office to make constituents aware of services; information gathering in which rules and regulations are researched in order to make the casework function of the office run more smoothly; casework, where Congressional staff assist constituents in navigating through the bureaucratic labyrinth, often to collect benefits or to solve specific problems; education of constituents on what the views of their Congressmen are on particular political issues, and also collection of constituent opinions; nomination of individuals to United States service academies; and arrangement of visits and tours of the Capitol as well as the White House. All these functions are what I took part in while interning at the office of Congressman Peter Roskam, and these also are generally recognized as the primary function of any Congressional office.
First, I will touch on the outreach function that every Congressional office deals with in one way or another. Every Congressman has goals that he/she would like to achieve in public life. How the Congressman goes about deciding what these goals are is obviously going to vary from Congressman to Congressman. Some may like to be more proactive in setting an agenda for their term, and others may like to take a more reactionary approach by simply waiting for constituents to voice concerns or advocate for certain positions, and then taking positions based on that input (Most Congressmen use both approaches). Depending on what approach is taken, every Congressman must do a degree of outreach to promote their agenda, and this outreach is often left to Congressional staff who set up meetings with outside groups in order to make the Congressman’s agenda known and to get reactions to it, and also to promote the work of Congressional staff and their role as facilitators of governmental activities. This job, of course, takes a lot of planning and wherewithal, and it also takes knowledge of the Congressman’s political geography to set up meetings in the most strategically effective manner. By strategically effective, I mean that each Congressman has stakeholders who have a vested interest in the Congressman’s public tenure, and it is going to be the most effective to have such stakeholders identified and to focus the most energy on promoting the agenda and positive services to these groups, and it will also be most effective to receive positive feedback from said stakeholders.4 As dirty as that may sound, it is often the case that the most important stakeholders are, in fact, representative of the interests of the constituency as a whole, so this process is generally about pinpointing the backbone of the community and approaching it for support, which will hopefully then emanate out to individual constituents. These stakeholders are often-times businesses, church groups, advocacy groups and other constituent organizations, and so on.
Second, I will touch on the information gathering aspect of a Congressional office. Given that Congressional offices are constantly interacting with constituents, and indeed that basically everything a Congressional office does revolves around the constituents in one way or another, it makes perfect sense that Congressional offices would serve an information gathering function. Even if Congressional offices were not deliberately trying to gather information, they would have no choice but to do so because it is integral to performing all other functions effectively and efficiently.5 So, when it comes to information gathering, Congressional offices need to keep the most up-to-date information on a variety of things, such as current bureaucratic policies, statutes and regulations of the many different federal agencies, and the constituents general views on how the many programs work in practice, whether it be good or bad. Of course, staying up to date on the policies, regulations, and statutes of agencies such as Social Security, Veterans Affairs, Medicare, Department of Labor, Armed Services, etc, is necessary because many times constituents have problems dealing with unreceptive and sluggish bureaucracy, and they lack the expertise to go it alone.
To meet the various problems that arise when constituents and constituent groups deal with federal agencies, Congressional offices employ a staff that specializes in the intricacies of bureaucratic policies to help constituents extract the services they need and are entitled to. Congressional staff is constantly collecting information on new and old procedures so that when people call for help, their problems are quickly met with solutions. Furthermore, information regarding how federal agencies respond to the needs of the people is always being collected, which acts to fulfill House oversight obligations, and helps to ensure that if programs are not operating in a lucrative fashion it will be acknowledged and useful changes can be made to adapt programs to the needs of the people.
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