They’ve won their elections and are headed to Washington, D.C. Their next challenge is using their expertise to make Congress work better.
Among the more than 100 newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives are six who touted their backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and medicine on the campaign trail. All Democrats, they helped their party seize control of the 435-seat House for the first time since 2010. At the same time, they promised constituents they would reach across the aisle to get things done—something they will have many chances to do with Republicans maintaining their grip on the Senate and Republican President Donald Trump in the White House.
Fresh off their electoral victories, the new STEM members talked with Science last week about national issues that also affect the scientific community. Topics included whether scientific facilities should be part of any upgrading of the country’s infrastructure, how to provide accessible and affordable health care, and how the billions spent on political campaigns limit who can run for office. They also described their preferences for committee assignments, which are determined by party leaders, and their thoughts on being part of the largest Democratic gain in the House since the 1974 post-Watergate class.
The comments below are based on individual interviews with biochemical engineer Sean Casten of Illinois, industrial engineer Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, pediatrician Kim Schrier of Washington, nuclear engineer Elaine Luria of Virginia, ocean engineer Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, and nurse and health policy analyst Lauren Underwood of Illinois.
On campaign finance reform
All the new members mentioned the need for greater transparency and, in particular, their support for disclosing who contributes to so-called super PACs, political action committees that fund politically charged ads but operate independently of any candidate. Requiring disclosure would “make sure that people don’t lose confidence in our democracy, because everybody assumes the worse if you don’t know,” Casten says.
But Casten thinks that’s not nearly enough to ensure a level playing field in elections. “In the longer term, we really need to have public financing of campaigns,” he argues. “It’s not lost on me that, had I not just sold a company, I wouldn’t have been able to run.” He’s referring to Recycled Energy Development, a company he and his father formed in 2007. Casten used some of the money from its sale to bankroll his successful race against Representative Peter Roskam (R–IL), in which each man spent more than $6 million.
Now that he’s won a seat, Casten is concerned that the need to fund his reelection campaign in 2020 will crimp his ability to do his job as a legislator. “The practical reality is that, given the amount of time you have to spend raising money, the taxpayers are, in effect, paying members of Congress to raise money,” he notes. “If we want to pay them to legislate and be informed on the issues, we need to free up their day.”
Houlahan also thinks public financing would directly benefit STEM-trained professionals and others who have traditionally not participated in the political process. “I have been running for Congress for the past 20 months, all in, and that is without holding another job—this is a 60- to 80-hour-a-week job by itself,” she says. “And that means you can’t guarantee that this is a democratic process if people must take the better part of 2 years out of their working lives to take a swing at this.”
“As a STEM person, I understand that scientists are not likely to have the networks and be part of a business culture of helping one another run for office, as other professions do,” she adds. “So, I think we need to look at it in a more holistic manner. The current process simply doesn’t promote the type of diversity that we need for our democracy to work as it should.”
On infrastructure improvements
Both Trump and Democrats have suggested an infrastructure spending bill could be an area of cooperation. Luria hopes it would accomplish three goals: Modernize the country’s transportation system, create jobs, and address climate change. The last is especially important for her southeastern Virginia district, where sea-level rise not only disrupts daily life with periodic flooding, but also threatens the country’s largest naval base. She also hopes some infrastructure money would trickle down to two federal research installations in her district—the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. But the problem is how to pay for what many Democrats say should be a trillion-dollar investment.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favors by passing a tax bill that incurs $3.9 trillion in debt,” Luria says, referring to a measure passed earlier this year by the Republican-led Congress. She and her Democratic colleagues opposed the Trump-sponsored cut, which she felt helped corporations at the expense of the middle class. At the same time, she thinks Republican votes will be needed to pass an infrastructure bill. “Nobody thinks that improving infrastructure is a bad idea. The question is what’s in the package, and the timeline. I hope we can work across the aisle to agree on priorities.”
Cunningham, who claimed an open seat in a very conservative district, says he wouldn’t want an infrastructure a bill to increase overall federal spending. And he says a good place to find savings is in what the government spends on prescription drugs for seniors.
“If Medicare could negotiate the price of drugs, we could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” he says. “And there are lots of other areas in which government is inefficient and needs to be tuned up.”
On restoring earmarks
Congressional leaders stopped the practice of directing money to a specific project in a member’s district in 2011, after some glaring abuses. But many members in both parties would like to see earmarking return. They argue it dovetails with Congress’s constitutional authority to appropriate funds and can also be used as a carrot to persuade otherwise reluctant lawmakers to sign on to pending legislation.
That tactic is what turns off good-government advocates on both sides of the aisle. And the new STEM candidates are divided in whether earmarks should be brought back.
“A lot of people who I respect have said that there was more comity in Congress when earmarks existed because it was a political currency that could be exchanged,” Casten says. “And that makes intuitive sense to me. So, I’d like to have that tool in my belt, And then I can be judged by how responsible I am in using it.”
Cunningham is less convinced of the value of earmarks, but he doesn’t rule them out. “If you have people who can reach across the aisle, then you don’t need earmarks,” he says, reiterating his campaign pledge to work with Republicans. “I’d rather focus on bringing people together, and then use earmarks as a last resort.”
Schrier doesn’t even want to go there. After narrowly defeating Dino Rossi for an open seat in a district outside Seattle, Washington, that has traditionally voted Republican, she says she is focused on improving a “broken” U.S. health care system and that earmarks are not on her radar.
On preferred committee assignments
What is important to Schrier is getting a seat on a House committee that lets her apply the knowledge she’s gained as a primary care physician. She’ll be the only female doctor in Congress, and she doesn’t think the current contingent of physicians in the House, most of whom are Republican, have represented the profession well.
“You would not know it, by looking at the doctors in Congress, that most doctors have as their goal to make sure their patients are covered and to improve health care,” she says. “That is the voice that I will bring, and I would love to have the opportunity to pursue those issues by serving on the Energy and Commerce Committee [which oversees most federal health care agencies].”
Underwood has likewise set her sights on a panel that deals with health care, a list that includes Ways and Means and the Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as Energy and Commerce. She also knows freshmen rarely get chosen for such “A” level committees, but she doesn’t see that as an obstacle. “I think that I will be able to have an impact on legislation that comes to the floor of the House no matter what committees I serve on,” she says.
Her north-central Illinois district is home to DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a world leader in high-energy physics. But the science committee is not an option, she says, because two other members of the Illinois delegation—representatives Dan Lipinski (D) and Bill Foster (D)—already sit on the panel. “I’ve been informally encouraged to look at committees on which there is not already robust representation from my state,” she says.
Another member from her home state now sits on the committee, but Republican Randy Hultgren won’t be returning to Congress because Underwood defeated him this month.
Luria says she’d be happy to serve on the science committee because it oversees federal research efforts to improve resiliency against climate change. “I think my technical background would allow me to understand the issues they tackle,” she notes. However, she also cited geographic balance as a possible barrier, although one of the two Virginians on the panel, Republican Barbara Comstock, also lost her seat in last week’s elections.
Being part of a wave
The 116th Congress will contain a number of “first-ever” Democrat members of the House, as well as the most women—more than 100—in history.
For Schrier, that record number means “a lot of women decided at the same time to lead, to roll up their sleeves and get involved. Our percentages are still low, but we’ve gone from under 20% to almost 25% [of House members]. And that’s moving toward 50%. So, yes, I do feel that I am part of a wave, and I look forward to bringing in even more women.”
Houlahan also feels her victory is part of a bigger movement. “It’s a wave of people elected that provide diversity on many dimensions,” she says. “Not just gender, but with their STEM backgrounds. And I’m also one of several veterans and an entrepreneur in the class. I think those backgrounds are missing in Congress right now.”
On the next House speaker
Cunningham is the only one in the group who said he would definitely vote “no” on a bid by Representative Nancy Pelosi (D–CA), the longtime leader of House Democrats, to become speaker of the House again. But he doesn’t have a favorite. “I want to see who else is running,” he said last week. “Before you hire somebody, you want to interview them see their qualifications. And I don’t know yet who all will be running.”
The other new members are taking a wait-and-see approach. “What I have said to Pelosi and anybody else who may be considering a run is that I want to sit down and chat about your goals,” Casten says. “And after meeting them I can be an informed voter.”