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Representative Dana Rohrabacher: 'I Plan to Be an Activist One Way or Another'

Representative Dana Rohrabacher

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

Today, ScienceInsider is taking a closer look at the three veteran politicians running to become chair of the House of Representative's Committee on Science, Space, and Technology: Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), and Lamar Smith (R-TX). The winner will be selected later this month by the House Republican Steering Committee, a group of about three dozen House Republicans.

Just elected to his 13th term in Congress, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, 65, will represent California's 48th district, which straddles the Pacific coastline of Orange County and Los Angeles. A speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher has become known as a pugnacious conservative firebrand—and a "banjo-playing, folk-singing, arch-conservative surfer." Using rhetoric that is sometimes hyperbolic even by political standards, he argues for low taxes, less government spending, and tough sanctions against illegal immigrants. He's been an outspoken critic of China, and questioned the sanity of U.S. government spending on research and environmental programs involving Chinese partners. He's skeptical that human activities are contributing to global warming, and has vigorously debated climate scientists who hold opposing views during congressional hearings. A member of the House science committee for 24 years, he's been a champion of the U.S. aerospace industry and helped write the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, which has helped private companies such as SpaceX enter the space launch business.

Last week, Rohrabacher spoke with ScienceInsider about his second try at becoming head of the House science panel; he lost in 2010 to the current chair, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), who is stepping down after having reached the 6-year limit as the top Republican on the committee. Here is an edited version of his remarks.

Q: Congratulations on reelection.

D.R.: Well, overall it was a sad affair; it was good for me but not good for the country necessarily. I'm very upset that Mitt [Romney] lost, but ah well. … I guess we have to offer some better alternatives.

Q: Where do you think you stand in the race for the committee chairmanship?

D.R.: I think it is neck and neck between myself and Lamar [Smith]. We both have arguments to make on our behalf. Lamar does have a small bit of seniority [26 years compared with Rohrabacher's 24], but I've been more active on the committee is recent years. … That sort of evens out, I guess. Lamar has had a chance to be the chairman of a full committee before, and I don't think a lot of people believe it is fair that one small clique of people should be transferring chairmanships among themselves. … I think the fact that he's already been a chairman give me a little edge on the fairness issue, which I think is important to some of the people making this decision.

Now, Lamar is from Texas [and] there are a lot of Texans that donate to the party who are going to want Lamar. And there are a lot of Californians who donate to the party who are going to want me.

Most importantly, when it comes down to some major issues, I think that I offer a great deal more in energy and passion that would help the Republicans shine, as compared to Lamar. [He] is more someone who is "get the job done" and is more methodical and less passionate. And certainly someone who is a very respectable person, but not someone who excites people to get involved and get things done.

Q: Would you agree that you would be more pugnacious and aggressive than Representative Smith?

D.R.: Yes, I would agree that would not be a pejorative description. We have very different styles.

Lamar would probably stay away from controversial issues and I would want to put them forward and have an honest debate so people could take a look at the issues of the day. … I want to make sure that the American people know that the Republican Party has a vision for this country.

Q: Is Representative Sensenbrenner not a factor?

D.R.: I think Sensenbrenner has had his chance. He's already had 4 years as chair of the science committee [from 1997 to 2001]. I can't believe people would bypass people like myself, who have never had the chance to have the leadership of a committee, to give it to somebody who already has. … That would be demonstrably unfair. And that's why I don't think that would be under serious consideration.

Q: The science panel is often considered a second-tier assignment, and some say it has been pretty inactive the last few years. How would you change that?

D.R.: If I'm the chairman, the science committee will no longer be a backwater committee. Some people want to be chairman just to be chairman. [But] there are a lot of things that I want to get done, and make sure that the money we are spending is not wasted. For example, I've been the chairman of two of the major subcommittees. … When I was chairman of the space subcommittee, I was able to author the commercial space act, and that piece of legislation has been enormously important for the development of a whole new industry. … That's the kind of role I will play in the future. I'll be finding ways of making the science and technology committee a vehicle for Republican solutions to problems, as opposed to the Democrats' bureaucracy and more government spending.

Q: And how would you recruit members who might be skeptical of joining?

D.R.: My pitch to freshmen and everybody else is that the science committee can be a forum for the major science issues of the day. We not only will pass reauthorizations for NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, but we can be a forum for points of views. … We can lead the national debate on science issues. We can have a debate on fracking [the natural gas drilling technique]. Let's have two scientists who say fracking is a danger to the country, and two scientists who say it's the best hope we've ever had. Let's put them in a debate forum in front the committee. The same should be true of global warming. … We would become a science and technology forum as well as an authorizer.

Q: How much of a priority would you put on the committee's authorizing role, for example reauthorizing NASA's enabling legislation and the COMPETES Act?

D.R.: That's the fundamental job that you've gotta do. Before you do anything else, you've got to do what you've got to do. You don't go out to try to change the world until you've taken care of the everyday business at hand that you are supposed to be getting done. The NASA reauthorization, and that type of thing, is just fundamental. That is where you have a lot of authority; … you are trying to direct the course of events, rather than trying to come up with new ideas and new programs.

Q: And what about the committee's oversight role—any particular areas you might focus on?

D.R.: I would be committed [to oversight]. For instance, I want much stronger oversight and correction in the development of the small modular nuclear reactors. I have been very disappointed that we are moving forward with building reactors that are light-water reactors. That is a 60-year-old technology. I would be committed to the development and the deployment of a new generation of small nuclear reactors that do not have the drawbacks of light water reactors.

Q: What about programs like the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)? Do you have views on where it should go?

D.R.: That would be an oversight type of thing. They need to accountable for the decisions they've made, and who knows what's going to happen to [ARPA-E] as we try to deal with the budget. My focus would be to make sure that the Department of Energy is not just practicing cronyism.

Q: Are there other issues you are thinking about?

D.R.: One thing I really bring to the leadership is an international perspective. If we are going to have major scientific initiatives, like [on] space debris clearing—which we need to do—or asteroid defense, there needs to be international cooperation. I would go out of my way to enlist other countries in cooperative space efforts.

Q: You've been critical of climate and environmental scientists; would you do anything to address that strained relationship?

D.R.: My analysis is that in the global warming debate, we won. There were a lot of scientists who were just going along with the flow on the idea that mankind was causing a change in the world's climate. I think that after 10 years of debate, we can show that that there are hundreds if not thousands of scientists who have come over to being skeptics, and I don't know anyone [who was a skeptic] who became a believer in global warming.

Q: If you lose the leadership race, will remain on the science committee?

D.R.: Oh yes, I plan to be an activist one way or another. I love science.