Overview of Rider Bills in Government

Rider Bills are Often Stealth Legislation

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In U.S. government, “riders” are bills in the form of additional provisions added to the original versions of bills or resolutions considered by Congress. Often having little relationship to the subject matter of the parent bill, riders are typically used as an often-criticized tactic intended to gain the enactment of a controversial bill that would probably not pass if introduced on its own. 

Other riders, known as “wrecking” or “poison pill” bills are used not to actually be passed, but merely to prevent the passage of the parent bill or to ensure its veto by the president.

Riders More Common in the Senate

Though they are all in either chamber, riders are used more often in the Senate. This is because the Senates rule’s requirements that the subject of the rider must be related or “germane” to that of the parent bill are more tolerant than those of the House of Representatives. Riders are rarely allowed in the House, where amendments to bills must at least deal with the substance of the parent bill.

Christmas Tree Bills

A close relative of rider bills, “Christmas tree bills” are bills that garner many, often unrelated, amendments. A Christmas tree bill consists of many riders. The amendments that “decorate” the main legislation often provide special benefits to various groups or interests. The term refers to allowing each member of Congress to hang their pet decoration on the proposed legislation.

Most Christmas tree bills grow as minor bills passed by the House. Not restricted by the germaneness rule present in the House, Senators can add unrelated amendments to the House bill, some of which may give tax benefits to special interest groups in the Senators’ home states and major campaign contributors. Ironically, Christmas tree bills are enacted in the crush of legislation as Congress hurriedly prepares to adjourn for its Christmas holiday. The term is believed to have been coined in 1956 by Clinton Anderson, a Democratic Senator from New Mexico, who when asked to comment on a farm bill to which more than one hundred amendments had been introduced told Time Magazine, “This bill gets more and more like a Christmas tree; there's something under it for nearly everyone.”

Most States Effectively Ban Riders

The legislatures of 43 of the 50 states have effectively banned riders by giving their governors the power of the line-item veto. Denied to Presidents of the United States by the U.S. Supreme Court, the line-item veto allows the executive to veto individual objectionable items within a bill.

An Example of a Controversial Rider

The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, required the creation of something that most Americans have always opposed – a national personal identification registry. The law requires the states to issue new, high-tech driver’s licenses and prohibits the federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes —like boarding airliners—driver’s licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet the law’s minimum standards.

When it was introduced by itself, the REAL ID Act garnered so little support in the Senate that is was never even brought to a vote. But its backers got it passed anyway. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, attached it as a rider to a bill no post-9/11 politician would have dared vote against, titled the “Emergency, Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief.” That bill allocated money to pay the troops and pay for the war on terror. Few voted against the bill. The military spending bill, with the REAL ID Act rider attached, passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 368-58, by a vote of 100-0 in the Senate. President George W. Bush signed it into law on May 11, 2005.

Rider bills are most often used in the Senate because the Senate’s rules are far more tolerant to them than the rules of the House. In the House, all amendments to bills must generally be related to or deal with the subject of the parent bill being considered.

Riders are most often attached to major spending, or “appropriations” bills, because the defeat, presidential veto or delay of these bills could delay the funding of vital government programs leading to a temporary government shutdown.

In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes complained that lawmakers using riders could hold the executive hostage by “insisting upon the approval of a bill under the penalty of stopping all of the operations of government.”

Rider Bills: How to Bully a President

Opponents – and there are many – of rider bills have long criticized them as being a way for Congress to bully the President of the United States.

The presence of a rider bill can force presidents to enact laws they would have vetoed if presented to them as separate bills.

As granted by the U.S. Constitution, the presidential veto is an all-or-nothing power. The president must either accept the riders or reject the entire bill. Especially in the case of spending bills, the consequences of vetoing them just to quash an objectionable rider bill could be severe. Basically, the use of rider bills greatly dilutes the president’s veto power.

What almost all presidents have said they needed to counteract rider bills is the power of the “line-item veto.” The line-item veto would allow the president to veto individual measures within a bill without affecting the main purpose or effectiveness of the bill.

Currently, the constitutions of 43 of the 50 U.S. states have provisions allowing their governors to use the line-item veto.

In 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 granting U.S. presidents the power of the line-item veto. In 1998, however, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional.

Rider Bills Confuse the People

As if keeping up with the progress of bills in Congress isn’t hard enough already, rider bills can make it even more frustrating and difficult. 

Thanks to rider bills a law about “Regulating Apples” can seem to vanish, only to end up being enacted months later as part of a law titled “Regulating Oranges.”

Indeed, without a painstakingly daily read of the Congressional Record, riders can make keeping up with the legislative process almost impossible. And it’s not like Congress has ever been accused of being too transparent in how it does the people’s work.

Lawmakers Introduce Anti-Rider Bills

Not all members of Congress use or even support rider bills.

Senator Rand Paul (R – Kentucky) and Rep. Mia Love (R - Utah) have both introduced the “One Subject at a Time Act” (OSTA) as H.R. 4335 in the House and S. 1572 in the Senate.

As its name implies, the One Subject at a Time Act would require that each bill or resolution considered by Congress embrace no more than one subject and that the title of all bills and resolutions clearly and descriptively express the subject of the measure.

The OSTA would give presidents a de facto line-item veto by allowing them to consider only one measure at a time, instead of rider-packed, all-or-nothing “package deal” bills.

“Under OSTA politicians will no longer be able to hide the true subjects of their bills behind propagandistic titles such as the "PATRIOT Act," the "Protect America Act," or the "No Child Left Behind Act,” stated DownsizeDC.org, in support of the bill. “No one wants to be accused of voting against patriotism or protecting America, or of wanting to leave children behind. But none of those titles actually describes the subjects of those bills.”

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Longley, Robert. "Overview of Rider Bills in Government." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/rider-bills-in-the-us-congress-stealth-legislation-4090449. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 1). Overview of Rider Bills in Government. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rider-bills-in-the-us-congress-stealth-legislation-4090449 Longley, Robert. "Overview of Rider Bills in Government." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rider-bills-in-the-us-congress-stealth-legislation-4090449 (accessed June 9, 2023).