Surprise Choices Mark New Leadership on U.S. House Science Panel

Moving up. Representatives Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) are new chairs of the research and energy subcommittees, respectively, within the House science committee.

United States Government; Office of Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis

High turnover is not unusual within the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives, which ranks low on the totem pole of powerful committees. Even so, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), the new chair of the full 40-member committee, has made some surprising decisions in selecting the chairpersons of the panel's six subcommittees.

Chairs are one way that party leaders reward members for loyal service, or simply for longevity. But there appear to be other factors that carry more weight this time around. Take the new head of the technology and innovation subcommittee: Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY).

For starters, Massie is a freshman, and rookies rarely get a chance to lead a subcommittee. More notable, however, is the fact that Massie has already snubbed the leaders of his party on two major votes—and apparently escaped the usual consequences of such rogue behavior.

On 3 January, Massie was one of a handful of Republicans who voted against reelecting Representative John Boehner (R-OH) as speaker in a failed insurrection. Instead, he chose Representative Justin Amash (R-MI), a sophomore legislator well-known for his scorn of party discipline. On New Year's Day, Massie parted ways with Boehner on the bitterly contested bill to blunt the fiscal cliff, although in that vote he was joined by a majority of his party colleagues.

In a press release on his appointment, Massie says his engineering background and track record as a high-tech entrepreneur "makes him uniquely suited to serve as the chairman" of the panel. He wasn't available for additional comment.

Smith's choice for the research subcommittee is also raising eyebrows. The chair in the previous Congress, Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), had explored the role of the federal government in supporting academic research in several hearings and had requested a study on whether government regulations have become an impediment to research productivity. Although just a freshman, Brooks was widely seen by science lobbyists as an emerging player in the ongoing debate over the direction of U.S. research policy.

But Brooks, whose district includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, has been stripped of his post and replaced by second-term Representative Larry Bucshon (R-IN). Bucshon is a cardiothoracic surgeon from rural southern Indiana and a political neophyte who was elected on a promise to repeal Obamacare. He's also voted for the drastic cuts in domestic spending contained in the House budgets drawn up by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Bucshon declined a request for an interview with ScienceInsider. But his press statement on his appointment notes "my background in science and medicine" and says it has taught him "the importance of research in improving the life of all Americans and the role it plays in economic development."

Brooks was named co-pilot of the panel's space subcommittee, which will continue to be led by Representative Steven Palazzo (R-MI). And he issued a statement saying that he is "thrilled to be appointed Vice-Chairman on a committee that is so important to America and the Marshall Space Flight Center."

A press release from Smith was silent on Massie's qualifications and said only that he "look[s] forward to joining Rep. Massie to advance policies that spur innovation, job creation and economic growth." Smith's statement about Bucshon's selection was slightly more personal, explaining that Bucshon was chosen "because of his extensive background in research as a physician." (A search of the National Institute of Health's PubMed Central database found no publications under his name.)

The third new subcommittee chair, overseeing energy, is Representative Cynthia Lummis (R), Wyoming's only member of the House. Elected in 2008 and a former member of the A-level appropriations committee, Lummis is a career politician—a lawyer and former state treasurer who also advised former Republican governor Jim Geringer on natural resource issues. Not surprisingly, given Wyoming's role as a leading coal producer, she's a strong advocate of the fossil fuel industry, and skeptical that humans are contributing to climate change.

Her new position is a "perfect fit" with her interest in energy policy, Lummis said in a statement. "In recent years we have seen a proliferation of opinions and Hollywood fiction masquerading as science," she added. "As Representative to the second largest energy producing state in the country, I am looking forward to the oversight responsibilities incumbent upon this subcommittee, and to the task of ensuring sound science is the basis for every discussion on domestic energy production."

Lost in the shuffle is Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL). The second-term legislator has been a vocal advocate for continued federal support of basic research. He's just formed a bipartisan congressional caucus on national laboratories that reflects his interest in the continued vitality of the Department of Energy's Fermilab in his district.

Hultgren has said he wants to play a bigger role on the science committee. He successfully appealed a decision last month by the Republican Steering Committee to boot him from the committee, which also required him to persuade Representative Scott Rigell (R-VA) to give up his seat to make room for Hultgren. But despite that interest—and despite outranking both Bucshon and Lummis in seniority on the committee—Hultgren was left without a leadership position when the assignments were handed out. His office had no comment.