What is the Role of a Legislator in Congress?

Theorizing Congress By Kevin R. Kosar January 1, 2024

Source: House.gov.

I taught a course on Congress to undergraduate students last year. After getting the students to share their concerns and dislikes about our national legislature, I then challenges them to ponder, “What is the role of a federal legislator in our constitutional system?” If you are going to judge them, shouldn’t you be clear about your evaluative criteria?

To help us think through this topic, we read about the differences between the roles of representative, trustee, and politico. We listened to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) give a speech on January 6, 2022 where he said he was doing the people’s work by questioning the legitimacy of the results of the presidential election. We also read a terrific Martin Diamond essay on the Constitution and representative democracy as means to protecting liberty. Yes, part of a legislator’s role is to uphold the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, almost inevitably he is a member of a political aprty, which creates its own obligations and expectations.

The class also ventured into the matter of the average voter and what he knows. In retrospect, I wish I had shared this quote with them. It comes from Walter Lippmann’s great book, The Phantom Public (1925):

“The private citizen today has come to feel like the deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake.  He knows he is somehow affected by what’s going on. Rules and regulations continually, taxes annually and wars occasionally all remind him that he is being swept along by great drifts of circumstance. Yet these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs.  They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant power centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. As a private citizen he does not know for certain what is going on, or who is doing it, or where he is being carried. No newspaper reports his environment so that he can grasp it; no school taught him how to imagine it; his ideals, often, do not fit with it; listening to speeches, uttering opinions and voting do not, he finds, enable him to govern it. He lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct. In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction.”

Mind you, Lippmann wrote that when the federal government was tiny compared with today, and its overall reach was cognizable.

Not so today, what with its 180 some agencies, 186,000 pages of federal regulations, etc. Even those of us who earn a living studying or working in federal governance cannot possibly grasp the whole, to say nothing of the seemingless innumerable parts.

So what does that imply for the role of a legislator in Congress? Not least that to do right by their constituents and the nation they must learn as much as they can about the federal government, and they also must help the public understand what is what. Critically, the legislator has an obligation to guide voters away from foolish, dangerous, or unconstitutional positions and demands. The willingness to do this delineates between a leader and a flatterer.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020). He hosts the Understanding Congress podcast.


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