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Legislative Process 101- Policy “Riders”

In our first explainer on the appropriations process, we outlined what a normal government funding process would entail to “keep the lights on.” There are a number of options for how Congress funds the government—whether by passing all 12 appropriations bills, in a catch-all “omnibus” (combined appropriations bills), or through a continuing resolution that extends current funding levels until a certain date.

Whatever option Congress uses to pass an appropriations bill, the important thing to know is that these are “must-pass” pieces of legislation. They must be passed or the government fully or partially shuts down. No one relishes a government shutdown (except, maybe, Ted Cruz), which is why lawmakers typically work together to make sure that spending bills are enacted by their deadlines. Typically.

Policy Riders

The trick with must-pass bills is members of Congress (MoCs) can use them as an opportunity to attach policy changes, even if those policies would be difficult to pass on their own. The thinking is, if members can manage to get their policy priority into the must-pass bill, other MoCs will have to support it because they want to avoid a shutdown. These are called policy riders—because they “ride” on top of a must-pass bill. And, because the president lacks line-item veto authority (meaning they can’t selectively veto parts of a bill; they have to sign or veto the entire bill), they must sign the appropriations bill as-is, which means policy riders have a high likelihood of becoming law. Policy riders tend to be controversial.

So when we talk about riders, we’re talking about “strings attached” to appropriations bills that must become law. Typically, we see riders in two forms. In the most typical form, Congress includes riders that limit the use of funds appropriated, effectively steering the executive branch in their preferred direction. In another form, a rider is an extraneous appropriation of funds, such as Trump’s request for funding for a U.S.-Mexican border wall, attached to an appropriations bill that is necessary to continue funding the government. Not all policy riders are bad, though, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

A Good Example of a Policy Rider: The Hyde Amendment

First introduced by the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), the Hyde Amendment is a common policy rider that is attached to the Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations (Labor-HHS) bill, which funds a variety of health care programs. Hyde prohibits the use of federal funding for elective abortions in programs like Medicaid. There is no law on the books that has codified the Hyde Amendment, which is why this rider is attached to each Labor-HHS bill. When a rider like the Hyde Amendment is consistently included over and over again, it becomes much more difficult to keep it out in future bills, which has had enormous implications for reproductive justice.

A Good Example of a Good Policy Rider: Blocking Funding for Trump’s Racist Border Wall

When Democrats took control of the House in 2018, that meant that even though Trump was still president, they had a say in how these “must pass” government funding bills were written. They rightly began writing in limits on “transfer authority” (the ability for the executive branch to move money between accounts) into appropriations bills in an attempt to block Trump from diverting money to fund his racist border wall. While not all of these efforts were ultimately successful, it’s a good example of the type of policies we should expect Democrats to fight for when they are in the majority. 

What does this mean during a Democratic Trifecta?

For the most part, when Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party, policy riders are less common because there is more agreement on must-pass bills. However there are a two key things to keep an eye out for:

Undoing the Legacy of Republican Control

Remember the Hyde Amendment we mentioned before? That’s the sort of policy rider we need to make sure Democrats remove from their funding bills now that they control both chambers of Congress. Some Republican riders will be removed easily, as there is broad consensus among Dem MoCs to strip them out. Other riders might be more difficult, whether that’s because they are more politically contentious or because they have been included for so many years that breaking the pattern is more challenging. It’s our job to make sure Democrats enact legislation that aligns with our values, which means ending harmful riders and undoing the legacies of Republican control. 

The Threat of Bipartisan Riders

Must-pass bills may still be used in attempts to pass legislation with bipartisan support. For example, the annual bill authorizing the Defense Department (National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA) often receives bipartisan support, and previously was used as a vehicle to enact a paid leave program for federal workers. We need to be wary of this during a trifecta, because bills like the NDAA that receive bipartisan support are often not nearly as progressive as we believe they should be. That means popular policy riders could be used as a way of enticing progressive Democrats to vote for a bad Defense bill that perpetuates endless wars and has giveaways to greedy defense contractors. Moderate Democrats might also use these riders as political cover to justify their vote for the underlying bill, even if it includes harmful compromises. 

How Can I Fight for Progressive Priorities with This Knowledge?

Be sure you know where your MoCs stand when these policy riders come up, especially if there is a particular issue that you care about. If you have a Republican MoC, they will likely try to attach harmful riders to bills, so exposing the damage their policies would cause will be key. If you have a Democratic MoC, we need to make sure they are committed to removing destructive legacy riders and not falling for bipartisan traps or supporting insufficient legislation because of the riders attached to it.