Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Rookies lead the way on House science panel

A major perk of being the majority party in the U.S. Congress is getting to fill the leadership slots on every committee. For several new Democratic legislators, however, having their party regain control of the House of Representatives also creates an unprecedented opportunity to shape U.S. science policy.

On Wednesday, the newly configured House science committee will convene for the first time to adopt its rules and structure. To no one’s surprise, the 39-member committee will choose Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) as its chairwoman.

A 14-term legislator and former nurse administrator, Johnson has spent the past 6 years aggressively leading the Democratic charge against any number of Republican proposals seen as threats to the U.S. research enterprise. Now, her party will be setting the agenda. But her new lieutenants—the chairs of the panel’s five subcommittees—are rookies unschooled in the ways of Congress and, for the most part, in the challenges facing the community.

Four of the five—all women—were elected to Congress in November 2018 as part of the 40-seat blue wave. None has a scientific background, nor did any receive the endorsement of a pro-science organization, 314 Action, which backed more than a dozen House Democratic candidates.

At the same time, only one of the eight new members of the House who made science a pillar of their campaigns and gained 314 Action’s backing has landed on the science committee. That is Representative Sean Casten (D–IL), a clean energy entrepreneur who defeated a longtime Republican incumbent. But Casten, a biochemical engineer who co-founded a company that helps firms become more energy efficient, will start out as a backbencher.

Johnson’s leadership team consists of representatives Haley Stevens (D–MI), as chair of the research subcommittee; Kendra Horn (D–OK) atop the space subcommittee, Mikie Sherrill (D–NJ), who will lead investigations and oversight; and Lizzie Fletcher (D–TX), who will chair the environment subcommittee. The energy subcommittee will be led by Representative Conor Lamb (D–PA), who won a special election in March 2018 and earned a full 2-year term in November 2018. Horn, Sherrill, Fletcher, and Lamb are lawyers, and Stevens is a party activist who served briefly in former President Barack Obama’s administration.

These new legislators got the chance to rise to the top because of the arcane House rules that determine committee assignments. The rules are intended to reward members who demonstrate a commitment to a particular committee by focusing their time and energy on its business, and it advanced the rookies over many members who have served much longer on the committee and in Congress. They will have a disproportionate impact on the science committee, representing nearly one-quarter of the 18 new members who earned subcommittee gavels across 20 standing House committees.

In brief, a member who is chair of another committee or leads one of its subcommittees can’t hold two such leadership positions. Members of so-called “A” committees aren’t even allowed to serve on a second committee, although in some cases they can receive a waiver of that rule. And even if they do get a waiver, they lose their seniority on the second committee and are placed below any newbies.

On the science panel, those rules both drastically shrunk the list of members eligible for leadership posts and boosted the chances of freshmen legislators. It knocked out of the running such longtime science advocates as Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL), who led the research panel when the Democrats were previously in the majority, and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR), the top Democrat on the environmental panel in the 115th Congress. Even Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), the only Ph.D. physicist in Congress, is far down the eligibility list because he also serves on the influential Committee on Financial Services.

Joining Johnson as the only committee veteran in a leadership role is Representative Ami Bera (D–CA). Bera was chosen as vice chair, an honorary position that his predecessor, Representative Don Beyer (D–VA), used to be the party’s point person in its attacks on Republican initiatives. However, last month Beyer won a coveted spot on the Committee on Ways and Means, a so-called “exclusive” committee, knocking him out of consideration for a leadership spot on science.

A physician and former clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, Bera won his fourth term in November 2018 by 10 points after two previous razor-thin victories. He is also the new chair of the oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which made him ineligible for a subcommittee gavel.

The science committee traditionally has had a hard time attracting and retaining members because, as Foster once noted, “you can’t raise money from it.” That’s shorthand for the fact that powerful lobbying groups give lavishly to the leaders of panels setting the country’s tax, energy, fiscal, and regulatory policies in hopes of gaining influence over pending legislation. In contrast, science policy rarely registers on the national political barometer.

House Democratic leaders prevailed on veteran Representative Steve Cohen (D–TN) to fill the last Democratic vacancy on the science committee. To do so, Cohen, a lawyer who is the incoming chair of the constitution and civil rights panel of the influential House Committee on the Judiciary and who also serves on the transportation committee, was granted a waiver to add science to a lineup that includes the transportation and ethics committees.

Republicans, meanwhile, are still scrambling to fill the last two vacancies on their 17-member science committee roster. Representative Frank Lucas (OK) will be the top, or ranking, Republican on the panel, which for the past 6 years was led by then-Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), who did not run for re-election in 2018.

The committee’s open-door policy affords newcomers a forum to advance issues that don’t always attract national attention. For Casten, whose appointment to the Financial Services Committee hindered his chances of winning a leadership slot on the science committee, that means diving into the minutia of governance. His press release touting his new assignment lists six of his priorities, including restoring the congressional Office of Technology Assessment that Republicans abolished in 1995 and developing guidelines for the “responsible” use of “disruptive technologies such as CRISPR.”

The new subcommittee chairs have yet to lay out their agendas, and some didn’t even send out a press release announcing their posts. But with the ability to hold hearings and invite witnesses, their time has arrived.