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Wonkology: Policy Rider

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May 2, 2017

A provision added to an appropriations bill that directs or limits how the Executive Branch spends funds.

Mama Tried

Congress has many powers, from declaring war to providing advice and consent on a president’s nominees. In terms of its routine legislative authority, its power is generally bifurcated into two areas. Authorizations are bills that typically establish the functions, responsibilities, and scope of federal programs. Separately, appropriations are bills that exercise Congress’s “power of the purse” to fund those federal programs. Congress is not supposed to authorize in appropriations bills, but the House and Senate typically ignore their own rules forbidding this practice.

Under regular order, Congress should pass 12 separate authorization bills annually. Over the past decade, however, regular order has broken down. In its place, a new order has become the norm, where the deliberate process of regular order has given way to combining those 12 bills into one massive omnibus appropriations bill or stop-gap continuing resolutions. As a result, Congress is now in a perpetual state of moving from funding crisis to funding crisis.

Mama, I'm Coming Home

Members of Congress all the while have policy priorities they would like to see enacted. In the past, they would do this either in authorizations or as earmarks, which were funding set-asides in appropriations for a specific purpose. Both the House and the Senate banned earmarks in 2010. With fewer authorizations moving forward in recent years, omnibus appropriations are now the ultimate “must pass” piece of legislation. No wonder, then, that policy riders have emerged as the tool for members to get what they want in the absence of other legislative activity.

During periods of divided government, presidents often clash with Congress in an attempt to avoid policy riders in appropriations bills that would constrain their administrative agenda. Even in a period of united government, policy riders can be used to direct the administration’s spending or protect pet projects. When combining a new president and unified government, policy riders are one tool of many for President Trump and Republicans in Congress to abate elements of the Obama agenda.

Mama Said Knock You Out

Congress should have completed federal fiscal year 2017 appropriations by September 30 of last year. Three continuing resolutions later, 2017 appropriations are still not yet finalized. At 2 a.m. yesterday morning, Congress posted the final text for the 2017 omnibus. Because 60 votes are required in the Senate to move to final passage on the omnibus, Democrats seem to have maximized their leverage in these negotiations. The final bill excluded dozens of policy riders that were GOP priorities, many that would have defunded or delayed Obama-era regulations. The 2017 bill should pass later this week. Appropriators will then have to immediately turn to their work on 2018 appropriations, and the negotiations over many of those same policy riders will begin anew.