Congress’s use of riders dates back to the 1830s. In fact, in 1837, delays in passing appropriations bills because of legislative riders prompted the House to adopt a rule prohibiting any expenditure not previously authorized by law. Nevertheless, riders—particularly policy riders—have become commonplace.
Nineteenth-century riders ranged from limiting war powers to federal supervision of elections. By the 1970s, limitation riders became one of Congress’s principal policy-making tools. From 1971 to 1977, 225 limitation amendments—a surprising 31 percent of all amendments!—were offered to appropriations bills. By 1980, limitation riders accounted for over 40 percent of all amendments, and almost always involved volatile policy issues. In FY1980, for example, riders included restrictions on nondiscrimination enforcement by federal agencies and limits on OSHA’s enforcement of safety standards in small businesses.
Limitation riders proved critically important during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. The Iran-Contra affair, for example, centered on the refusal of Reagan administration officials to comply with a limitation rider prohibiting federal assistance to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Other 1980s and 1990s riders dealt with abortion funding, FCC affirmative action guidelines, and communications between executive agencies and congressional oversight committees. (1)
Riders are most often tacked onto appropriations bills because vetoing a spending bill due to single rider obviously can have serious ripple effects for programs funded by the bill.
Backers of the policy rider approach—and there are many on both sides of the aisle—say it’s a valid tool for keeping the executive branch in check. Opponents see riders as a way for Congress to bully the executive. (2)
Because the Senate’s rules of germaneness are much more flexible than those of the House, generally speaking, riders arise more frequently in the Senate. In the House, riders are generally prohibited because any amendment to a bill must deal with the substance of the bill under consideration.
Given that riders have been used for over 186 years, don’t expect them to disappear anytime soon.
- “Appropriations Riders” by Neal Devins, William & Mary Law School
- “Policy Riders: What They Are, How Congress Uses Them, and Why They Matter to You” by Philip Wegmann