© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.


The Real Poop

It's been said that you don't want to see how two things are made: sausages and laws. If you can't think of a better way to spend your life, you can tie on an apron and start chopping or you can roll up your sleeves and start campaigning.

If you have a burning ambition to help Americans thrive by maneuvering through the U.S. legal system, you may be one of a very select group of men and women elected to the U.S. Senate.

The requirements and the compensation for the job are straightforward. More elusive is the blend of personality, motivation, background, and ability needed to serve in such an honorable position.

The responsibility can (and should) be humbling, and the power intoxicating. Unlike private sector jobs, Senators must earn the trust of more than half the voters in his or her state, and once elected, must balance a thousand conflicting interests and principles.

You get six years to make good on the promises you gave your state. If you do, you can be rewarded with deep personal satisfaction and perhaps fame. You may be given another six years or you may hold higher office. Senators not only represent their home states, they hold the reins of power and shape American history.

Senators are considered the more dignified of the Congressional bunch. The House of Representatives has historically been more animated, its members more colorful and eccentric. Think of all the shouting and ballyhooing of the British House of Parliament and you'll be reminded of our political heritage. The House is just more populated: There are 435 members, so there's bound to be some shouting.

Think of the Senate as the Alumni Association to the Animal House of Representatives.

Most Senators have law degrees. Lawyers come from all sectors of the profession. There are defense attorneys with a love for public service and those with high profile, highly controversial clientele. There are those who found their way in family law and are driven to change existing divorce, custody, or juvenile crime legislation. Corporate attorneys may know contracts or labor laws. Some specialize in product development or, if the product fails and results in harm, there are attorneys who wield the slingshot for Davids against Goliaths.

Senators are not required to have any education at all. The essence of public service is that any citizen elected by his or her peers can go to Washington and speak to power on their behalf. Senators who are not lawyers come from businesses, large and small, public and private. Agriculture, academia, medicine, and the military have all produced Senators. Others "come up through the chairs," as they say in Congress. These are the folks who have been in public life for the first stage of their careers. Some people catch the political bug on their school boards, Chambers of Commerce, volunteer or charitable organizations. Some arrive quickly after a sudden, life changing catastrophe that impels him or her to action. Many come from minority or low-income populations and have a mission to bring justice to their communities and beyond.

Then there are the wild cards, the misfits, the rebels, the motorcycle gangs—well, the None-of-The-Aboves whose names we already know, but whose achievements are seemingly unrelated. Bill Bradley, the pro basketball player, comedian Al Franken, the astronaut John Glenn, Fred Thompson (who not only is a politician, he plays one on TV), and even one of Elizabeth Taylor's ex-husbands (she had seven, but still, that's a pretty select group).

Most of the 1,000 or so people who have served in Congress have been white, Christian, and male, but that started changing over a century ago, slowly, but surely (but you can call her Congresswoman Chisholm).

If you want to be a Senator, you'll need a suit and a haircut, at least for your first term (*cough*PAUL WELLSTONE BERNIE SANDERS*cough*).

Take a glance at the Senate floor in action on C-SPAN. Can you smell the excitement? Can you hear the gears of history grinding? Probably not. Even though Senators are required to be physically present for votes, they are busy in their offices, the hallways, and meeting rooms. If a vote is scheduled, it'll be on your calendar. If not, you have about a 10-minute opportunity to “walk and talk” your way to the Senate floor to cast your vote.

The real sausage making occurs in committees. Committee is a misleading word. It suggests an ad hoc gathering, like a task force, but committees are where Congress members really flex their muscles. We live by the laws created by these legislative panels.

There are Senate committees and House committees and there are joint committees for both bodies. Congress members can choose the committees they'd like to serve, but the positions are appointed by Democrat and Republican leadership. There are roughly 250 committees and subcommittees. Each considers one bill at a time for the two-year Congressional session. They research the bill by inviting citizens or experts to testify and then they decide to modify or pass a bill. A bill can go on to become law very quickly, and when a new one passes, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives are affected. Committees decide if America is to send troops to Afghanistan, to bail out Wall Street Banks, to stop or start trading with other countries, to help the elderly pay their bills, and to balance the U.S. budget. There are special standing committees just for Indian Affairs and another for Ethics.

If you want to be a Senator, you won't be happy with the typical job. Senators work extraordinary hours, sometimes sleeping in their offices during the early years. Senators don't get the normal lunch breaks or home lives. They have to run two households and two offices, one in their home state and one in DC. You must have an impeccable background and a deep sense of justice. There are only 100 available positions…but the odds don't scare you a bit. They invigorate you. You are driven because you want to make positive changes for the 300 million citizens of the United States.