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What does a senator do?

Congress doesn’t “sit” for legislative sessions very often — an article by Thought.co says that since 2000, the Senate has been in session an average of 165 days a year.

But the term “legislative day” is a bit misleading, considering that, in Congress at least, a “legislative day” is only when the session is officially adjourned. For the Senate, this means that a “day” can sometimes take longer than a week.

In session

During their legislative days, bells ring through the Capitol, signifying that the house is in session and announcing the day's to-do list.

After an opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the Senate majority and minority leaders give 10-minute speeches. They introduce the bills and legislation they’ll be discussing that day, they debate, then, once it’s time for them to vote, another bell rings and those who missed the debates arrive to record their position.

Ultimately, senators are responsible for considering any nomination the president submits, vetting new members of the legislature, working with various lobbying groups, and serving on various committees.

Serving time

According to a report by the Congressional Management Foundation that asked members about their life in congress, many said that when they are in session, they work 70 hours a week, on average.

35% of their work days are dedicated to legislative and policy work.

When senators are on recess, their average weekly working hours drops slightly to 59 hours a week.

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Their summer schedule

At the end of July, when senators head back to their home states, you might imagine them breathing a sigh of relief.

But as Time reports, many lawmakers would likely prefer to stay in the capital, given the amount of work they have waiting for them.

Meeting constituents

A major part of a senator’s responsibility during recess is taking their constituents’ political pulses, and in general being a stable presence in their district.

As part of keeping up visibility in their district, senators may also have multiple speaking engagements, media interviews, and public appearances.


One of a senator’s key roles is fundraising, and that goes double if it’s an election year for them.

A 2021 report by Issue One, likens congressional fundraising to a treadmill, because of how much senators are expected to raise without a real break.

The report notes that the median amount of money raised in the third quarter of 2021 by an incumbent senator running for re-election in 2022 was $1.3 million, which works out to $13,600 per day — about six times more than a senator who is not running.

In the third quarter of 2022, senators running for reelection raised a combined total of $101 million from individuals, political action committees (PACs), and other sources. According to Issue One, that’s more than twice as much as incumbent senators raised two years earlier.

Traveling, both domestically and abroad

When senators aren’t in the capital, they need to tend to their districts, which often means traveling across large geographical areas in order to meet and greet their constituents.

International travel during the recess is also important. Mostly, senators travel abroad on a taxpayer-funded congressional delegation (CODEL), where they conduct a tightly-scheduled itinerary in support of the president’s foreign policy objectives.

Less commonly, senators may also take part in privately-sponsored trips. However, if a senator embarks on a privately-sponsored trip, they have to prove to the Ethics Committee that it can be considered part of their official duties, and that six hours of each day will be allocated towards official activities.

Maybe… relaxing?

Of course, if there is any time left, many senators try to use the recess for a bit of R&R with their families. But if they’re called back to Washington for a time-sensitive vote, they need to be willing to put their business suits back on over their swimsuits.

Bottom line, August recess may have once been more of a relaxing reset for the legislature, but it’s not one anymore. They rarely get any playtime before the bell rings and the legislature lines up to go back inside.


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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.


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