It was supposed to be a chance for legislators to discuss the Obama administration’s 2015 federal budget with presidential science adviser John Holdren.
But sarcasm and political trash-talking overrode serious debate at Wednesday’s hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Even in a Congress noted for its polarization and lack of comity, members of the panel seemed more interested in name-calling than numbers. As a result, the 2-hour hearing was more evidence of how entrenched and extreme views are dramatically remaking what was once one of the most rational forums in Congress for discussing science policy.
Several members, for example, appeared to be trying to mock rather than engage Holdren on climate change. “I may want to get your cellphone number, Dr. Holdren,” said Representative Randy Weber (R–TX), “because, if we go through another few cycles of global warming and cooling, I may need to ask you when I should buy my long coat on sale.”
Weber, a freshman from the Galveston area, began his interrogation by asking Holdren whether “when you guys do your research, you start with a scientific postulate or theory and work forward from that? Is that right?” Holdren gamely played along, explaining that “it depends on the type of science, but the notion of posing a hypothesis and then trying to determine whether it is right is one of the tried and true approaches in science, yes.”
But Weber’s question was really just a setup for his concluding statement. “I just don’t know how you all prove those theories going back 50 or 100,000 or even millions of years,” Weber said.
Holdren had a longer—but not necessarily more substantive—exchange with Representative Bill Posey (R–FL), now in his third term representing a district that includes the state’s space coast. “I’ve never heard anyone say that we don’t have climate change,” Posey asserted. “We have had climate change since the Earth was formed, whenever you believe that was, and we will have it until the Earth implodes, whenever that is. The question is, how much of it is due to human behavior?”
Holdren offered his view that “the climate change we are experiencing now for the last several decades … is largely due to human activity. We are superimposing on slow natural climate change a faster rate of human-driven climate change.” Holdren also noted that “the natural changes that are under way would, if they were the only influences, actually be cooling the planet. We would be in a long-term cooling trend. Instead, we are in a warming trend, which suggests that human activity is overwhelmingly responsible.”
But that explanation didn’t deflect Posey from making his broader point—that there’s nothing unusual about the current climate and that the past holds few lessons for the present. And he also did it with a nod to history.
“I remember in the ’70s, that [cooling] was the threat, the fear,” Posey recalled. Then he pivoted. “I’ve read that during the period of the dinosaurs, that the Earth’s temperature was 30° warmer. Does that seem fathomable to you?”
One freshman on the Democratic side couldn’t resist adding his own brand of insults, aimed not at the witness but at his Republican colleagues. “I have to say that, frankly, Dr. Holdren, at this point you should be prepared to address whether the Earth is round or flat, or whether indeed gravity is happening. You just never know what could fly at you,” said Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA), whose northern California district includes two Energy Department national laboratories. His scorn also took him far afield from the subject of the hearing.
“And I have to say that, with 97% of scientists stating that climate change is manmade, I’m encouraged to see that some of my colleagues from across the aisle have given voice to the minority 3%,” Swalwell continued, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “This is encouraging for the other minorities that my colleagues across the aisle have not helped out, including immigrants waiting for comprehensive immigration reform, women who have not received equal pay for equal work, and those who are affected by changes in the Voting Rights Act.”
It would be nice to report that cooler heads prevailed. The committee chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), did extend Holdren the type of respect that was once a given on the committee. But the veteran legislator also spent more time airing a list of grievances against the administration—notably involving environmental regulations and the security of the administration’s website to sign up for Obamacare—than engaging in a substantive discussion of where the U.S. research enterprise is headed.
Smith also took some digs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in his long-running battle with the agency over grants that he and other Republicans feel are frivolous and wasteful. After reading a list of such grants, including what he described as a $20,000 study “of the causes of stress in Bolivia,” he quipped, “Well, what causes a lot of the stress [for this committee] is studying the causes of stress in Bolivia.” After a brusque exchange with Holdren over whether NSF has done enough to explain the grants to the public, Smith cut off Holdren with the comment, “we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
It should be noted that some of the rancor that legislators showed was the old-fashioned kind, of raging against policies that they simply don’t like. Grilling Holdren on why the administration has proposed mothballing an infrared telescope flown aboard a Boeing 747 because of high operating costs, Representative Chris Collins (R–NY) repeatedly interrupted Holdren’s attempt to explain. And then the freshman legislator from New York’s Finger Lakes region blew up.
“Is it or is it not a priority? … Please answer the question,” Collins pressed, giving Holdren limited chance to reply. “So it’s not a priority,” Collins finally concluded the one-sided debate.
The rancor marking the science panel debate came in marked contrast to another, largely bipartisan, hearing held the next day by an appropriations subpanel examining the NSF budget. That hearing, for example, ended with a request from its chair, Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA), for additional materials that will help him argue for a larger NSF budget when the spending bill goes to the House floor.
The science panel’s deep divide, however, comes as little surprise to some political scientists. In a legislative body with record levels of polarization, the science committee is even more polarized along partisan lines than the House as a whole. Those calculations were done late last year at ScienceInsider’s request by political scientist Christopher Hare of the University of Georgia, Athens. He is one of the researchers associated with Voteview.com, which uses a model called DW-NOMINATE to measure legislators’ liberal-conservative positions.
Hare found that while the science panel’s Democrats generally reflected the political leanings of the Democratic minority in the House, its Republican members were, on average, more conservative than House Republicans as a whole. The science panel’s polarization “is quite impressive,” Hare wrote in an e-mail, given the House’s already high level of divisiveness.