One political science professor’s recent research sheds light on a powerful tool utilized by Congress to control the actions of government agencies.

Limitation riders are provisions in legislation that prohibit agencies from spending money for specific uses. Through this approach, Congress can exert greater influence over bureaucratic policy decisions.

Jason MacDonald, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at West Virginia University, pushed limitation riders into the scholarly discourse by researching the influence of these mechanisms on congressional and bureaucratic policy making.

Hundreds of limitation riders are used annually. During the recent budget crisis, one limitation rider would have limited the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act. But intense negotiations between Democrats and Republicans led to Congress eliminating the rider from the bill. This example shows how Congress can use limitation riders to reach policy goals and decisions.

“On the whole, I would argue that limitation riders are beneficial,” MacDonald said. “They allow Congress to reach into the bureaucracy and influence the policy decisions of agencies. This is good in that members of Congress are elected representatives in the branch of our government that has legitimacy under the Constitution to make laws.”

MacDonald’s research appeared in the November 2010 edition of the academic journal “American Political Science Review.” To gain insight into this unseen side of policy making, MacDonald spent time speaking with congressional staff about the issue.

“Social scientists should take advantage of the expertise of individuals participating in the behavior that is being studied,” MacDonald said. “If I tried to study limitation riders without talking to professional staff in Congress maybe I would have been able to say something interesting but, whatever I said, it would not have been half as good.”

MacDonald teaches an introductory American Government course, a class on Congress at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and research methods for graduates. Thus far, his research has focused mostly on how and why Congress maintains influence over policy after it has delegated authority to make decisions to the bureaucracy.

He has published articles in journals such as “American Political Science Review,” “American Politics Research,” “Legislative Studies Quarterly” and “Political Research Quarterly,” among others. At the 2008 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, he presented a paper that he co-authored on the influence of women on representation and was subsequently nominated for the Emerging Scholar Award. The award recognizes the best paper presented by scholars receiving their PhD during the last six years.

“My hope is that political scientists and people who study public policy take note of the research and incorporate how limitation riders provide Congress with leverage over bureaucratic policy decisions into their understanding of the lawmaking/policy-making process,” MacDonald said.

For more information, contact Jason McDonald, assistant professor of political science, at (304) 293-3811 or


CONTACT: Devon Copeland, Eberly College interim director of communications
304-293-7405, ext. 5251,

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