Washington and Social Science: The Midterms and Science Committees

In October, the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as other judicial and executive branch nominations. The Senate also rejected a resolution disapproving of a regulation related to short-term, limited-duration health insurance plans, and cleared for the president’s signature the Water Resources Development Act. The Senate also cleared the comprehensive opioid bill, which was signed into law. The Senate adjourned for the elections on October 11, while the House was in recess for the entire month of October.  The congressional mid-term elections were held on November 6.

Democrats Take the House, Republicans Retain the Senate

Democrats and Republicans alike can view the results of the November 6 mid-term elections as either the glass is “half empty” or “half full.” As expected, the Democrats re-captured the majority in the House for the incoming 116th Congress (2019-2020). With the outcomes of several races still to be determined, the Democrats managed to “flip” at least 30 House seats, enough to secure a majority. While acknowledging that they were likely to lose the House, Republicans are pleased with their performance in key Senate races, defeating incumbent Democratic senators in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri. Democrats were able to flip only one seat, with challenger Jacky Rosen’s victory over incumbent Nevada Senator Dean Heller.

Social Science news bulletinDemocratic House candidates performed well in suburban congressional districts, where there is considerable discontent with President Trump and his agenda.  Republicans candidates in key Senate races were able to mobilize their base in rural areas, particularly in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

How the Elections Will Impact Science Committees…

When Congress reconvenes later in November, both parties will begin the process of electing new leaders, committee chairs, and committee ranking members. Committee assignments for new and returning members will not occur until January, so the impact of the elections on the membership of the science authorizing and appropriating committees will not be known for several months.

However, with the retirement of Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and the Democrats taking the majority in the 116th Congress, it is likely that Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, will become chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which has oversight of the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Representative Dan Lipinski D-Illinois, may become chair of the Research Subcommittee. On the Republican side, either Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma or former Science Committee chair Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin could become the committee’s ranking minority member. Several key Science Committee Republicans were defeated in the election, including Representatives Dana Rohrabacher of California, Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Steve Knight  of California and Research Subcommittee chair Barbara Comstock of Virginia.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Subcommittee will also experience significant changes. Current full committee ranking minority member Nita Lowey, D-New York, will likely become the new chair of the committee, and current CJS ranking member Jose Serrano, also of New York, will become the CJS chair. Current CJS chair John Culberson, R-Texas, lost in his bid for re-election, so there will likely be a new lead Republican on the committee, which could be former full committee chair Hal Rogers of Kentucky. There will likely be a contest for ranking minority member of the full committee between representatives Kay Granger of Texas, Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Tom Graves of Georgia.

With the apparent defeat of Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will also undergo changes. Nelson served as the committee’s ranking minority member, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, is currently next in the line of succession.  However, Cantwell currently serves as ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and may choose to stay in that position. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, currently the ranking minority on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, is third in line and may be a possible replacement. On the majority side of the committee, current chair Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota, will become the Senate’s new majority whip, so it is unclear if this will mean that he will vacate his chairmanship on the Commerce Committee. Roger Wicker of Mississippi is next in line in seniority. (NOTE: Senator Nelson is calling for a recount in the Florida Senate race, due to the very slim margin of his apparent defeat.)

The Senate Appropriations Committee will not see too many changes as a result of the elections.  Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, will likely remain as chair and ranking minority members, respectively. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, will remain as chair and ranking member of the CJS Subcommittee, respectively.

…and What Do the Elections Mean for Science?

Eddie Bernice Johnson
Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas

The change of power in the U.S. House may result in a different approach to science funding and policy. According to the Washington Post, incoming Science Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson – she was the first nurse elected to Congress — “will be the first chair of the committee with a STEM background since the 1990s, when it was led by former engineer George Brown (D-CA).” There may be attempt by the committee to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, or even the NSF in a separate piece of legislation. However, under Representative Johnson’s leadership, there will not be an attempt to pick winners and losers among scientific disciplines or cut authorization levels for the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate.  It is unclear at this time of any of the Republicans on the committee will replicate outgoing Chairman Lamar Smith’s approach of targeting SBE for cuts, or singling out specific NSF grants for scrutiny.

In a statement released shortly after her re-election, Johnson stated that, as chair, she would work to “ensure that the United States remains the global leader in innovation, which will require attention to a wide range of activities; … “including  “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks, and challenging misguided or harmful Administration actions.”  She also stated that she will pursue an agenda that would “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it….”

Under the leadership Representative Serrano, the presumed incoming chair of the CJS Subcommittee, the fiscal year 2019 CJS Appropriations bill may also provide larger increases to NSF’s budget, and may include language protecting the SBE Directorate.  In general, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and the Senate Commerce Committee have taken a strong bipartisan approach to NSF funding and policies, and this will likely not change in the new Congress.

According to the Washington Post, “this year, more candidates with degrees in science, medicine and engineering ran for Congress than ever before. Of the nearly two-dozen new candidates in this crop, at least seven won seats in the House of Representatives.”

In the News…

“How Science Fared in the Midterm Elections”Washington Post, November 7


“Congresswoman Johnson Announces Intention to Seek Chairmanship of Science Committee” | Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) press release, November 6

“Some takeaways for science from yesterday’s U.S. elections”| Science (Jeff Mervis), November 7

“Open-access plan draws online protest”Science, November 8

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 Late Night Humor

 Stephen Colbert Pillories Trump for Rejecting Climate Change Science, 

October 18

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Mark Vieth

Mark Vieth is a senior vice president of the Washington government relations firm CRD Associates. Since he joined CRD in 2002, he has specialized in bringing diverse associations, foundations, institutions of higher education and other stakeholders together to advocate for common objectives. Before that, Vieth was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years, including serving as chief of staff for then-Congressman Robert A. Borski of Pennsylvania.

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