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Leadership Turnover Gives Science Committee a New Look

APR 18, 2023
Reps. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), the new chair and ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, have started to carve out their agendas for the 118th Congress. Working under them, there are a number of new subcommittee leaders this year, half of whom are serving their first term in Congress.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) leading a House Science Committee hearing in 2018.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) leading a House Science Committee hearing in 2018. (Image credit – Bill Ingalls / NASA)

Three months into the 118th Congress, the plans of the new leaders of the House Science Committee are beginning to cohere.

In the wake of the committee’s success last year with the landmark CHIPS and Science Act, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) has called for sustained bipartisanship and is already advancing a series of legislative initiatives, with a particularly strong focus on weather and related geosciences. Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has echoed Lucas’ call for comity and voiced a particular interest in advancing fusion energy.

To move the committee’s business forward, Lucas and Lofgren are working with a substantially changed slate of subcommittee leaders, half of whom are freshly elected to Congress. While the ideologies of new and old committee leaders range widely across the political spectrum, so far they have adhered to the cooperative spirit that Lucas and Lofgren are advocating.

Lucas arrives with record of bipartisanship

Lucas said to new members at the committee’s first meeting this year, as he has to the press , that he regards it as the “fun committee” and the “committee of the future.” He remarked, “We are a solutions-focused committee. We not only work to solve the problems of today, but we sow the seeds that lead to innovations and technological advances 10, 50, and 100 years from today.”

During the past four years, when Democrats controlled the committee, Lucas served as ranking Republican and maintained cordial relations with now-retired Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Their cooperation helped foster the bipartisan agreement the committee forged around the provisions it contributed to the CHIPS and Science Act, which needed support from both parties to pass.

Previously, Lucas was also a lead negotiator for another major bipartisan law, the 2014 Farm Bill, when he was chair of the House Agriculture Committee, a role he held from 2011 to 2015. As a member of the Science Committee, Lucas has frequently directed his attention to weather and adopted a mainstream position on climate science, pointing to his own background as a farmer and to his Oklahoma district’s agricultural interests and vulnerability to extreme weather.

In the current Congress, Lucas’ interest in weather has already shaped the committee’s business. It has advanced bills covering certain National Weather Service activities and the use of Department of Energy supercomputers for research supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It has also launched an effort to update the Weather Research and Forecasting Act of 2017, which Lucas played a leading role in developing. And today, the committee held a hearing in support of a major push Lucas is making to reestablish NOAA as an independent agency like NASA.

Other legislative efforts the committee is planning cover matters such as promoting commercial space activities, comprehensively updating NASA policy, revisiting the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018, and codifying DOE’s various interagency collaborations.

Legislation aside, Lucas also intends to prioritize oversight of activities funded by the CHIPS and Science Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In addition, for the past year he has put pressure on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, particularly over OSTP Deputy Director Jane Lubchenco’s violation of integrity rules while serving as a scientific journal editor before joining the Biden administration.

Lucas’ bipartisan inclinations notwithstanding, he has occasionally taken highly partisan positions, such as proposing to prevent holders of Environmental Protection Agency grants from serving on the agency’s Science Advisory Board. The Trump administration went on to implement the policy unilaterally but it was quickly reversed in court.

Outside science policy, Lucas was among the 139 House Republicans who voted against certifying state electoral votes for the 2020 presidential election following the January 6 Capitol riot. That move placed him starkly opposite Lofgren, who was a member of the committee that investigated President Trump’s role in those events.

Lofgren pushing hard on fusion as ranking member

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) chaired the House Administration Committee from 2019 to 2022.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) chaired the House Administration Committee from 2019 to 2022. (Image credit – House Administration Committee)

Lofgren is a high-ranking member of the House Democratic Caucus and has long been on the Science Committee, though she has recently been devoting most of her attention elsewhere.

Aside from her role on the January 6 committee, for the last four years Lofgren chaired the House Administration Committee, which oversees the chamber’s operations and federal elections. In addition, from 2007 to 2022 she leveraged her background in immigration law as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee and has been a leading contender to be the top Democrat for the full committee.

At the kickoff meeting for the relatively low-profile Science Committee, Lofgren echoed Lucas’ appeal that its business be bipartisan. She also explained that “one of the main reasons” she chose to become its ranking member was her interest in advancing nuclear fusion energy.

Representing a district close to Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Lofgren has been a consistent champion for fusion energy and for Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, the world’s foremost center for inertial fusion research. This year, she invited the head of Livermore’s fusion energy efforts to the State of the Union address in recognition of the lab’s recent achievement of the long-elusive goal of fusion ignition. She then invited Livermore Director Kim Budil to testify at the committee’s first hearing and called for a “Manhattan Project-level of commitment” to fusion.

Lofgren’s district adjoins Silicon Valley and she has also been an advocate on issues affecting the tech industry, including the immigration of highly skilled workers. In her Judiciary Committee role, she has sought to create special immigration visa pathways for STEM students and entrepreneurs , but such initiatives have persistently become bogged down in partisan dispute over immigration policy more broadly.

Research and Technology Subcommittee

Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA) is the new chair of the committee’s panel with jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as general matters of innovation policy and STEM education. In hearings, he has highlighted his status as a newcomer to Congress and his interest in easing regulatory burdens. “I’m just a small business person in the trucking industry, so I like to focus from a business standpoint and see if there’s any problems or solutions,” he noted in one instance .

Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI) remains the panel’s top Democrat. She represents a suburban Detroit district and formerly worked at a Manufacturing USA institute, and she is an advocate for R&D and workforce programs that promote industry.

Energy Subcommittee

Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) has stepped aside as top Republican on the subcommittee that handles DOE research, a role he had held since 2015, and its chair is now newly elected Rep. Brandon Williams (R-NY). Williams served as a nuclear submarine officer early in his career and later became an entrepreneur. He referred to that experience at the committee’s first hearing, remarking that he has spent years working with technology transfer offices.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) returns for a second term as the panel’s top Democrat. A former New York City school principal, he is a member of his party’s left wing and has focused significant attention on integrating diversity and equity considerations into science and technology policy.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee

Space Subcommittee Chair Brian Babin (R-TX) represents a district encompassing Johnson Space Center and has now been his panel’s top Republican for almost eight years. Among the more right-wing members of the committee, he was one of a group of lawmakers who actively encouraged Trump to challenge the 2020 election result, but his Science Committee work has focused largely on space policy, where the partisan divides are less acrimonious.

The space panel’s ranking member is Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-IL), a television meteorologist from northern Illinois who is new to Congress.

Environment Subcommittee

Newly elected Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) chairs the panel that oversees NOAA and EPA science activities as well as climate and environmental research across agencies. Previously, he was an aide to Trump in the White House and on both of Trump’s election campaigns. Leading his panel’s first hearing of the year, on the weather law update, Miller said he intends for its work to be bipartisan.

The panel’s new ranking member is Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC), who represents a district in North Carolina’s Research Triangle region and is entering her second term in Congress and on the committee.

Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee

Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA) is the new chair of the committee’s oversight panel and is starting his second term as its top Republican. He owns a videogame development studio and holds an engineering degree from Caltech, a master’s degree in artificial intelligence from UCLA, and a doctorate in public administration from California Baptist University.

The panel’s ranking member is Rep. Valerie Foushee (D-NC), who is newly elected to Congress. Like Ross, she represents a Research Triangle district and was previously a state-level politician.

Other changes include departures of Beyer, Foster, and Sherrill

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) speaking at a House Science Committee hearing in 2019.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) speaking at a House Science Committee hearing in 2019. (Image credit – Aubrey Gemignani / NASA)

In addition to the turnover in the Science Committee’s leadership ranks, there have also been some significant changes within its broader membership.

On the Republican side, the committee has added Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), who represents the district encompassing Oak Ridge National Lab and is the House’s top appropriator for DOE. Another addition is Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), who interrupted his career in the House to serve the Trump administration as interior secretary but later resigned amid an ethics investigation.

For the Democrats, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) has joined the committee, declaring his intent to focus on artificial intelligence policy. He has also for years been an outspoken critic of the Justice Department’s prosecutions of scientists of Chinese descent. Newly elected committee member Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) is notable for being the youngest member of Congress at 26 years old.

Three of the Democrats’ subcommittee leaders in the last Congress have now departed the committee altogether.*

One is Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who chaired the Space Subcommittee and has been working in his spare time toward a graduate degree in AI. An aide to Beyer explained on Twitter in January that committee space was tight for Democrats and that Beyer had been “trying like hell to get back on” and hoped to eventually return.

The second is Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), who chaired the Oversight Subcommittee. Foster was a senior physicist at Fermilab before joining Congress and had put his name in the running to be the lead Democrat for the full committee. Members of Foster’s staff told FYI that he lost his spot on the committee because Democratic leaders had not reissued a waiver allowing him to serve on it while also holding a highly valued spot on the House Financial Services Committee.

The third is Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who chaired the Environment Subcommittee. Sherrill had been on the committee’s initial roster for this Congress, but was not included once all assignments were finalized.

*Correction: The original version of this bulletin neglected to note Sherrill’s departure from the committee.

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