Oldest House Member Is in Line to Lead Science Panel

In an election that saw Democrats cede control of the House of Representatives, it's probably fitting that the presumptive new chairman of the House science committee is a Democrat turned Republican.

Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX) came to Washington as a conservative Democrat in 1981 and switched parties in 2004, 3 years before his new party lost its House majority. A lawyer and former businessman, Hall easily won reelection yesterday to a 16th term representing a rural district east of Dallas. At 87 he's the oldest member of Congress. But this will be his first opportunity to lead the science committee.

As ranking member under Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), who's retiring next month after 26 years in Congress and 4 years as chair of the science panel, Hall has followed the committee's historical bipartisan philosophy—to a point. He's been generally supportive of programs under the committee's jurisdiction, which includes NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) science programs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But as a loyal party member—he's voted with a majority of his Republican colleagues 94% of the time in the current Congress—he's also led its attempts to curb spending.

His most notable success this year was during the reauthorization of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which backs a 10-year doubling of the budgets of NSF, DOE science, and NIST along with programs to foster science education and innovation. Hall blocked Gordon's first attempt at passage by adding an antipornography provision that forced the bill off the floor and back onto the House calendar.

Gordon eventually figured out how to get around the parliamentary maneuver, but not without incurring Hall's wrath.

"I am disappointed that my Democratic colleagues resorted to using a procedural tactic to defeat Republican changes that would have saved over $40 billion and restored the original COMPETES priority of basic research," Hall said before the final vote. "While I am glad we were finally able to reauthorize many of the important research and education program in this bill, the bill that passed today spends too much money, authorizes duplicative programs, and shifts focus away from the bill's original intent."

There has been speculation that the committee could offer Republicans a forum to attack the Obama Administration's plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Several vocal skeptics of human-induced climate change sit on the panel, including Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA) and Representative Paul Broun (R–GA).