Representative Mike Honda

Representative Mike Honda (D–CA) in 2010

erin m/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Special series on the new Congress: After 16 years of lawmaking, science ally Mike Honda departs

Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress in last month’s election. But that doesn’t mean the 115th Congress that convenes on 3 January 2017 is identical to its predecessor.

Fifty-six new members of the House of Representatives will take their seats (42 Republicans and 14 Democrats) along with four new Senators (three Democrats and one Republican). Although none has a science Ph.D., a few have significant ties to the research community.

This week, ScienceInsider is profiling three new members of the House with research connections, and one friend of science who is leaving.

Tuesday: Representative Jodey Arrington (R–TX), who directed commercial activity at a major university, expanding its research capacity

Wednesday: Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D–IL), who ran a university startup begun by an academic with an entrepreneurial bent

Thursday: Representative Ro Khanna (D–CA), who defeated fellow Democratic Representative Mike Honda in the race to represent a district in the heart of Silicon Valley

Today: Honda discusses what he learned in his 16 years in Congress.

Honda, listening to scientists, promoting equity

Representative Mike Honda has sat through more than a thousand hearings in his 16 years as a member of Congress representing a northern California district in the heart of Silicon Valley. At each one, says the 75-year-old Democrat, he listened impatiently as his colleagues put pet projects and petty grievances ahead of the chance to hear experts summoned to share their knowledge on a pressing issue.

It’s not a problem the former high school science teacher will have to endure any longer: Next month, after having failed to win a ninth term, Honda will be leaving Congress. And in a recent exit interview, Honda reflected on things he had learned as well as things he’d like to see changed.

One wish: new rules to curb grandstanding by legislators at hearings and to elevate the importance of witnesses, including scientists. “Scientists spend time and money to come here [Washington, D.C.],” he says. “And I think they should be able to demonstrate their expertise and explain things that have big implications for policy.”

At any given congressional hearing, each committee member typically is given 5 minutes to question the witnesses and listen to their answers. It’s not uncommon for a legislator to talk for four of those minutes, leaving the witness with time for little more than a cursory response. That approach allows legislators to maximize what Honda calls “nagging” and minimize the witness’s ability to rebut their arguments. Honda would also like Congress to limit the time allocated for opening remarks by legislators so that expert witnesses would have more time to speak.

His modest proposal is consistent with how Honda has done his job in Congress since arriving in 2001: He doesn’t seek the limelight, he relishes having substantive discussions on policy issues, and he respects what researchers have to say about the scientific evidence relating to those subjects. He also sat on spending panels that control the budgets of several important research agencies, a role that helped earned him a 2013 congressional leadership award from a coalition of scientific organizations.

Last spring Honda became the top Democrat on one of those panels. But that status wasn’t enough to stave off an aggressive challenge from Khanna, who last month beat Honda by nearly a 60-to-40 margin after narrowing losing to him in 2014. (California’s first across-the-line primary system allows two members of the same party to battle in the general election.)

Change happens fast in Washington. So this month, when ScienceInsider asked Honda to discuss his record and future plans, the interview took place in a windowless storage closet just across the hall from what had been Honda’s office. The suite, with its commanding view of the Capitol, had already been vacated to make room for another member.

Q: Did last month’s election send a message to Democrats?

A I think the message is to listen to the voters’ effect. We heard some of what they are saying, but we weren’t in touch with their feelings. So, yeah, we probably missed the boat on that one.

Q: How do you answer those who say the Obama administration declared war on coal?

A: We’re still extracting coal. But we’re just not going down into mines. And most of what we are extracting from the new fields in [the upper northwestern states] is being exported, and it requires less labor. The rhetoric about EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency] forcing thousands of people out of work is a nonsense argument. And we probably could have refuted it if we had paid more attention.

Q Has Silicon Valley changed its view of Washington, D.C., during your tenure?

A: When I first ran in 2000, the high-tech industry didn’t have much of a presence in D.C. I would ask them, "What can Washington do for Silicon Valley?" And they would say, "Just stay out of our way." They treated government policy as a problem, because they just didn’t understand how things work.

But as time went on, they began to see the value of having a presence here, and someone who could explain the value to society of the research that they are conducting. Now, they all have offices here.

Q: Some people think 2016 ushered in a posttruth era in politics. How does that affect how scientists talk to policymakers?

A: Yeah, well, you need to make a distinction between facts and what some people call truth. Truth is what you believe; facts are what you can establish. As a science teacher, I tried to teach kids what a fact is, that it’s observable, replicable, and that you can make a decision and then move on. When the process of scientific inquiry isn’t respected, people suffer.

Q: As an educator, are you bothered by calls to dismantle the Common Core standards in math and reading that most states have adopted?

A: I don’t think we should dismantle it. The original idea was to have a national standard. Absent that, you try to get as many governors as possible to agree on standards. The alternative is 50 different standards and 50 different ways to implement them.

I think public education is important, and that the fact our kids are not performing as well as those in other countries is a matter of national security. We’re suffering from the nature of the beast [of a decentralized system of education] that we’ve created over the years. People say education is not in the Constitution. But public education didn’t exist back then. So I think the idea that it should be turned over to the states has to be challenged.

Q: Your campaign ad that portrayed your opponent as an Asian-American puppet of Wall Street was heavily criticized. Could you have made the same point without the racial overtones?

A: Probably. We can always do things differently. But the purpose was to get people to question him more about where his money was coming from…. I was also criticized for taking PAC [political action committee] money. But to me, a PAC is simply individuals pooling their money to have their voices heard. I don’t have any regrets about doing that.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I want to continue my work on equity in education. You can’t have children coming to school who aren’t prepared to compete. Without the right tools, they will fall further behind their peers. I also want to keep working on Hepatitis B. A lot of people are dying of liver cancer from a disease that has no apparent symptoms. It’s a big killer among the Asian-American population, and some African-Americans, too. I know quite a few people who died from it in the past few years, so people need to be educated. We’ve promoted research by the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. But a lot more needs to be done.

Once people understand the genesis of a problem, then you can start working on how to save lives. That’s true for both these issues.