Contest to Lead Congressional Science Panel Heats Up

Three's a crowd? Representatives F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) are competing to become the next chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

The contest to become the next chair of the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology enters its stretch run this week. The process begins with House Republicans picking their party's leaders for the 113th Congress that convenes in January. Later this month, the House Republican Steering Committee—a group of about three dozen party leaders—will put forth its choices to lead the House's 21 permanent committees, a list that is normally rubber-stamped by the full Republican caucus.

Today, ScienceInsider takes a closer look at the three veteran politicians running to become chair of the science panel: Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX), F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

The unusual three-way race is the result of party rules that limit the current chair, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), to 6 years in any leadership position; Hall has led the panel for the past 2 years and served as its ranking Republican for the previous 4 years when Democrats controlled the House.

All three candidates are conservative Republicans with at least 24 years of service on the science committee. Sensenbrenner is running for his second stint as chair; he previously held the post from 1997 to 2001. Smith is looking for a new leadership role now that the term limits rule has forced him out of the top spot at the House Judiciary Committee. Rohrabacher is seeking his first chairmanship after leading two of the science panel's subcommittees.

Congressional-watchers say that each candidate has influential allies, but they put their money on Smith. "Smith clearly is the odds-on favorite to secure the chair—he has already garnered a lot of support within the Republican conference and leadership," says a former senior science committee staffer, echoing the views of a half-dozen other knowledgeable observers. None would discuss the race on the record, however, in part because they represent organizations interested in swaying the panel's work and did not want to risk offending the eventual winner.

In interviews last week with ScienceInsider, Sensenbrenner and Rohrabacher made their cases for the job. Smith declined to be interviewed, but provided written statements.

No matter who wins, outsiders are predicting the science panel will be far more active than was the case under Hall's leadership. "I think it is going to be a very dynamic committee," says the former staffer, noting that enabling legislation for NASA and a host of energy and environmental programs under the committee's purview will be expiring. Reauthorizing those laws is likely to be a priority for a new chair, she says, if only to prevent other House committees from encroaching on the panel's influence. "The science committee's jurisdiction is broad, and it touches on a lot of other committees' jurisdictions," the former staffer says, "so you want to make sure to continue to stay active in those areas."

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