Legislative Politics

The Flake Amendment and the Politics of “Limitation Riders”

Aug 5 '12

This is a guest post by Jason MacDonald.  For more on limitation riders, see his research here (ungated).  In addition, see the new issue of “Extension of Remarks,” the newsletter of the American Political Science Association’s Legislative Studies Section.


As is well known within the political science community, the U.S. House included language, the so-called “Flake Amendment,” in its version of the fiscal year 2013 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related agencies appropriation bill that prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding research within its political science program— a ban that will take effect if the language is included in the version of the bill that becomes law.

One detail lost in political scientists’ responses that understandably focus on explaining the benefits of political science research, is the policy-making tool used by lawmakers to execute the ban. This tool, the “limitation on appropriation” or “limitation rider,” enhances Congress’s capacity to affect public policy within the separation of powers system—a capacity increasingly challenged by assertive presidents.

Limitation riders are provisions within appropriations bills stating that “no funds” or “none of the funds” can be used for specific purposes. In the early 20th century, House majorities set precedents allowing for such provisions in appropriations bills despite objections that the provisions have no place in appropriations bills because they have the effect of changing the law (if only for a year). Along these lines, even though the law allows the NSF to provide grants under its political science program, the agency will be unable to do so for the next fiscal year if the Flake Amendment is enacted.

Limitation riders are particularly effective because they are written into appropriations bills.  If these bills are not enacted, the government, or sizable parts of it, will shut down. This makes it harder for the president to prevent Congress from using limitation riders to influence the bureaucracy’s actions (or more accurately, stop the bureaucracy from taking action). If President Obama received a “normal,” or non-appropriations, bill eliminating funding for political science research, he would be able to veto it with no consequences other than maintaining the status quo. However, if Obama vetoes this year’s Commerce appropriations bill because of the political science provision, whole government departments will shut down. I would like to think that President Obama is a fan of some political science research—but I doubt he’s that much of a fan! By making it easy to write provisions that affect policy into appropriations bills, Congress has enhanced its power over the executive branch.

This enhanced power is valuable in a separation of powers system because it allows members of Congress to promote the interests of constituents and stakeholders even if the executive branch cares less about those interests. As explained in more detail in the newsletter, one example involves Congress’ preventing the Bush administration from allowing Mexican-based trucks from entering U.S. transportation markets for the duration of the Bush presidency. Free trade advocates, among others, viewed this as bad policy. Nevertheless, labor organizations and domestic competitors to Mexican-based trucks benefited from this rider.

What is the take-away for political scientists and other observers of politics and government who care about how well political institutions provide representation? My view is that limitation riders help Congress compete with the executive branch in an era in which executive power is ascendant—and this is good if we want the separation of powers system to perform as Madison envisioned in <i>Federalist 51</i>. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised if this power enables Congress to do things that Madison worried about in <i>Federalist 10</i> or simply do things that we might view as unwise and/or parochial. Of course, as we learned from Madison, if we don’t like what the House has done, we can always follow the advice of national political science organizations and lobby our senators. If President Obama is unlikely to veto the Commerce appropriations bill because of the ban on political science funding, then keeping this rider out of the Senate version of the bill represents the best shot for opponents of the Flake amendment.