Once considered a backwater, invigorated panel tries to 'maximize its potential'

When jostling for committee assignments, most lawmakers are gunning for one of the "A" committees, like Appropriations, Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee? Not so much.

But 2014 candidates take note -- getting on the science panel might be a little more competitive next time around. Current committee members seem serious about addressing some of the biggest issues facing the nation and the world, from tomorrow's economy and climate change, to city-flattening asteroids.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who picked up the gavel this year, is dedicated to raising the committee's profile.

"I am making a concerted effort to revitalize the committee and maximize its potential," he said.


While it may not hold the purse strings to the entire budget, the committee does have sway over a small but vital chunk -- the $39 billion that funds research and development at national laboratories, agencies and universities. It also oversees part of the portfolios of numerous agencies, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. EPA, and the National Science Foundation.

An ambitious agenda for the year ahead includes reauthorizing the COMPETES Act to increase funding for R&D and science, technology, math and engineering education; reauthorizing NASA programs -- the first to move the agency beyond the manned shuttle era and toward commercialization; and proposing an energy R&D program.

"My goal is to have members feel they are playing an exciting part in the discovery of science, exploration of space and development of new technology," Smith said.

Young blood

Smith is a compact man whose love for science rivals the size of his home state of Texas. As an incoming freshman in 1987, he asked to be on the committee because he is fascinated by physics and astronomy.

"How can you live in the modern world without an abiding interest in science and technology?" he asked.

After being named chairman, he actively recruited members and ended up with more Republican applicants than seats available.

Smith is extremely pleased with the array of talent now on the committee, which includes three medical doctors; a nurse; two Ph.D.s; several engineers; numerous master's degrees in business administration, accounting and education; and too many Harvard law degrees to count.

There are also a couple of pilots, the former director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium, a best-selling author, small-business owners, and people with "common sense," Smith said.

The committee is now chockablock with fresh faces. Of the 39 members, 25 are freshmen or sophomores. Although that may reflect the high rate of turnover, many newbies asked to be assigned to the committee or want to stay on it.

Many have a vested interest in representing national labs (aka jobs) in their districts, but there is also a keen desire to engage in mind-tingling -- and sometimes chilling -- issues like roving on Mars, renewable energy and cybersecurity.

"It's the vision of Congress," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a freshman Democrat from California. "It's the committee that's thinking big."

At 32, Swalwell is one of the youngest on the panel, but he is not alone. There are several members younger than 40 on both sides of the aisle -- members whom Swalwell describes as tech-savvy and forward-thinking.

However, the committee also retains expertise and historical perspective -- along with Smith, veterans include ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Vice Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and, of course, former Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the oldest member of the House ever, who turns 90 next month.

There have been some recent changes. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) was going to serve as Environment Subcommittee chairman but was promoted to the Appropriations Committee. But the science committee also attracted Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who left Appropriations to lead the Energy Subcommittee.

Houston, we have jobs

For members of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, thinking big doesn't mean romanticizing space exploration or new discoveries (as cool as those things are). It means investing in tomorrow's industries by funding basic research and development today.

In a word, it all comes down to jobs.

"The No. 1 issue almost anyone here talks about is jobs -- science, space and technology are ways that we can do that," said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee.

Smith noted that all five Americans who won Nobel Prizes for science this year received National Science Foundation grants -- which are overseen by the committee -- for some of their research. "What better investment can you make than that?" he asked.

This is one of the main reasons that many observers say the science committee is pivotal, even if it is overlooked.

"It's a diamond in the rough," said retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who led the committee from 2001 to 2007. "A lot of people don't recognize the potential for the committee."

Boehlert was assigned to the committee as a freshman but stayed on it for his full 24 years in Congress. He said members assigned to the science panel would often treat it as their "other" committee, not giving it as much attention as the subject matters deserved.

Part of the problem is money. A high-profile committee assignment like the Ways and Means Committee can significantly boost campaign coffers or even deter political action committees from backing potential challengers, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

"The more powerful or influential committee you are on, and the more seniority you have, the greater the opportunity to raise money, particularly from PACs," Gonzales said. "I don't think the science committee is one of the coveted slots."

He noted, however, that in competitive races, committee assignments aren't going to sway the casual voter.

Climate change in more ways than one

Historically, the science committee has had the luxury of being relatively nonpartisan. One of the best things about being on the committee, Boehlert said, was instead of learning to become a card-carrying Republican or Democrat, he learned how to listen.

"For 24 years, I sat there and listened to a parade of some of the most distinguished scientists from around the world tell us about this threat called climate change," he said. "That's why I thought, 'We should do something about that.'"

That's changed some with outspoken climate skeptics on the committee -- including Rohrabacher and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). There was also an uproar after Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) disavowed evolution (E&E Daily, Nov. 8, 2012).

"When you have members that have basic disdain for science, who think evolution was an idea that came from the pit of hell, it doesn't make it easy to develop consensus," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Smith said he believes the climate is changing and plans to hold several hearings on the subject.

When taking action on that and other pressing problems, Smith said a guiding principle of the committee should be "good science, not politically correct science." He also wants to ensure evidence is "based on good science, not science fiction."

Smith has tried to bridge the political divide with a bipartisan retreat at the beginning of the year, bringing in two giants in the science communication world, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a professional negotiator.

So far, the committee appears to be making headway, having unanimously marked up two bills to bolster and coordinate cybersecurity research, H.R. 967, introduced by Lummis, Smith and Johnson, and H.R. 756. Both bills are headed to the House floor this week.

That was a positive sign for Bonamici. "Last Congress we didn't have a single markup," she said. "I have a lot of hope the science committee will be able to accomplish some good policy."

In fact, the committee and its subcommittees had 10 markups in the 112th Congress, but all were before Bonamici was elected to Congress and assigned to the panel in mid-February 2012.

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) is similarly encouraged by the simple fact that members are showing up to hearings, ready with questions.

"People really want to be there," he said. "It seems like there is a new level of engagement."

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