Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) in 2014

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

House science chair to retire from Congress

The controversial chairman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives announced today that he will not seek re-election to Congress next fall. The pending departure of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) could give the U.S. scientific community a chance to recalibrate a rocky 5-year relationship with a key congressional committee.

The 69-year-old Smith, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, is in the middle of his third 2-year stint as chairman of the science committee. House rules require members to step down as chairman after 6 years, so Smith was already a lame duck.

But his departure could be more than simply a changing of the Republican guard. Smith, trained as a lawyer, has fought acrimonious battles with scientists over peer review, climate change, and the role of the federal government in supporting basic research since becoming chairman in January 2013. He has clashed repeatedly with senior officials at the National Science Foundation, which he has accused of wasting tax dollars on frivolous research, and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he believes has hampered economic development through overregulation.

 “Chairman Smith’s climate denial and investigations have created consternation in the scientific community and relations have deteriorated while he’s been chair,” one longtime observer says. “But he has not been fundamentally hostile to the scientific or academic enterprise. In an increasingly ideological and polarized Congress, it’s not clear whether his successor will be less controversial.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been one of Smith’s leading critics over the years, says his departure “offers Congress and the science community a chance for a fresh start.” The science committee “became a venue for partisan conflict and political interference in science” during his tenure, says Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the union’s center for science and democracy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Smith’s letter announcing his decision notes that he has “been able to shape policy involving ethics, immigration, crime, intellectual property, space, energy, the environment, the budget, and high tech” as chairman of the ethics, judiciary, and science committees.” But the 16-term legislator is vague about exactly why he’s retiring, saying only that “for several reasons, this seems like a good time.”

It’s too early to speculate on who might succeed Smith as chairman. Seniority is a factor, but not the only consideration.

Assuming Republicans hold their majority in the House after the 2018 elections, Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK) would be next in line by seniority. Lucas, a former chairperson of the House agriculture committee who has served in the House since 1994, has also taken a hard line against government action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and been highly critical of EPA.

Other senior Republicans who could contend for the chair include Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA), who has served on the panel for more than 3 decades and ran against Smith for its leadership slot in 2012, and Representative Mo Brooks (R–AL), who recently lost a bid for a Senate seat in Alabama. Brooks chaired the committee’s basic research panel as a freshman legislator in 2011–12, but has been much less involved in committee business since then.

A favorite among science lobbyists for the job is probably Representative Randy Hultgren (R–IL). Fourth in line by seniority, Hultgren is a strong fiscal and social conservative. But he’s also been a strong advocate for the physical sciences, a stance reflecting the importance of two Department of Energy national laboratories—Argonne and Fermi—to his district.

If Democrats take back control of the House, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) would be first in line to claim the chair.

With reporting by David Malakoff.