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Headshot of Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna (D–CA)

Ro Khanna for Congress

Special series on the new Congress: Meet Ro Khanna, representing the heart of Silicon Valley

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

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

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

Khanna knows Silicon Valley

Ro Khanna wasn’t even alive when President Lyndon Johnson died in 1973. But the new Democratic member of Congress from California’s Silicon Valley thinks that the country needs someone with Johnson’s mastery of the legislative process, first as Senate majority leader and then president, to enact progressive policies based on the best scientific evidence.

“Of course it would be great to have more scientists in Congress,” says 40-year-old Khanna, who last month handily defeated eight-term Democratic incumbent Mike Honda after narrowly losing to him in 2014. “But what I’d love is to have another Lyndon Johnson in Congress who makes climate change his first priority. We need people who know how to work the system and the institution.”

A Yale University–trained lawyer with an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago in Illinois, Khanna comes to Washington, D.C., next month after two previous unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in the House. He’s never been a legislator, but he has a keen interest in technology policy. From 2009 to 2011 he promoted U.S. exports at the Department of Commerce, and after leaving the Obama administration he worked on intellectual property issues at the Silicon Valley, California, law firm of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich, & Rosati and wrote a book on advanced manufacturing.

Khanna’s ties to the tech industry even became a campaign issue, with Honda running a controversial ad that showed an Asian-American actor appearing to kowtow to corporate lobbyists. Honda says he was trying to make a larger point. But one reason the charge didn’t stick might have been how Khanna ran this year’s campaign.

“The last time I talked a lot about economic policy and what we needed to do to remain globally competitive,” he says. “But this time I focused more on community issues, telling stories and connecting with people. I tried to get into people’s hearts rather than just their minds. [In 2014] I was too academic.”

He offers similar advice to the leaders of Silicon Valley, many of whom are now his constituents. (Intel, Yahoo, Apple, eBay, and Tesla have headquarters or operate large facilities in his district.) “One thing I want to do is get Silicon Valley to think harder about those who have been left behind by the technology revolution,” he says. “It has created huge winners for those who are able to understand it and are adept at it. But it has also displaced a tremendous number of jobs. This election was all about people crying out that ‘We’re not part of this new economy. It’s not working for us.’ And policymakers need to look at the displacement that has occurred—jobs that have been automated or that have gone offshore—and ask, ‘What are we doing about it?’”

His answer? It starts with retraining those whose skills are outdated, he says. Moving farther upstream, he supports universal access to college, and improving elementary and secondary education to prepare students for college and the workforce. “And if the Republicans aren’t going to offer solutions, then we as Democrats need to step up,” he says.

Basic research backer

Khanna’s view of the government’s role in funding research aligns with mainstream Democratic thinking. He also shares it with undergraduates at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he is a lecturer in the economics department. “First of all, we need far more federal investment in basic university research,” he says. “According to Richard Levin, an economist and the former president of Yale, it’s one of three things you need to be competitive [along with free markets and fair competition]. The idea goes back to Alexander Hamilton. Even Herbert Hoover was all about aggressive government investment in basic research.”

But since 1980, he says, “we’ve been living with this myth that somehow government investment in research has not been critical to economic growth. It’s just naïve to think we can transition to this new economy without a strong government investment.”

Two other areas where that investment is critical are advanced manufacturing, which he defines as “making the machines that make the products,” and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure, which President-elect Donald Trump has said is one of his priorities. Both are potential areas of bipartisan agreement, he says, and the latter must be more than giving tax breaks to companies and wealthy investors. “Private financing to build things is not sufficient,” he insists.

Khanna doesn’t expect to see the next Congress move in the right direction on reducing carbon emissions, another priority for the rookie legislator. “I’m obviously in favor of a carbon tax,” he says. “And I think climate change is one of the biggest threats to our planet. But the new administration will have people in senior positions who are climate deniers, and they will have great sway on this issue. So we need to continue to make the case [for cleaner energy sources], and link it to economic competitiveness. But I’m not naïve about what it will take.”

Because of his interest in economic policy, Khanna says he’d love a seat on the House budget committee. “But I’m not presumptuous. Freshmen get the last pick.” He says he would be “open” to serving on the science committee, noting his admiration for the work of Representative Zoe Lofgren (D–CA), a senior member of the committee from a neighboring district who backed him over Honda.

Khanna was one of only eight new members to defeat an incumbent in the general election. And although he takes pride in that achievement, he is already feeling pressure to deliver for his constituents. “The current dysfunction in Congress is caused by an inability to find common ground and get things done,” he says. “And at some point the voters will get sick of that and start to throw out the incumbents.” Starting next month, Khanna will be one, too.