Political Scene

New Congress, New Faces
David Applegate

Last month’s column prognosticated on geoscience-related issues facing the 108th Congress. This month takes a related look at some of the new faces running key congressional committees. Committee chairs have the power to hold hearings and decide which legislation to put up for a committee vote. They often guide that legislation through floor votes and conference with the other chamber. The Republican return to power in the Senate combined with some key retirements in the House, means that several new individuals will control the agenda for the next two years.

Senate switches and then some

In the Senate, change starts at the top with the incoming Majority Leader. The emergence of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) brings one of the strongest advocates for science to the top of the pile. In addition to being a founding member of the Senate Science and Technology Caucus and a former chairman of the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, Frist was a co-sponsor of Senate-passed legislation to double federal research and development funding. With his background as a successful surgeon, Frist brought his credibility to the argument that biomedical advances depend on advances in other scientific disciplines. With all the demands of being Majority Leader, Frist cannot be expected to carry the science banner as actively as before, but having such a knowledgeable and willing ear in that position can only help the cause.

With the loss of their Senate chairmanships, the Democrats have lost control of an important bully pulpit, namely the hearings in which they could haul the administration in for questioning. But at least one of the new committee chairs can be expected to confront the administration with nearly as much gusto. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returns to the head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. A frequent critic of the administration’s policies, McCain held a hearing in the first week of the new session on legislation that he and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have proposed to establish a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gasses. The administration favors voluntary measures to address global climate change.

McCain is one of a number of Senate committee chairs who are simply resuming the positions they held at the start of the last Congress before the switch of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) threw control to the Democrats. Another returnee is Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to head the powerful Appropriations Committee. But not all the chairs are being refilled by prior occupants. At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the previous Republican chairman, Sen. Frank Murkowski (Alaska) has left for the governor’s mansion in Juneau (his last name will remain in the Senate, however, as his completes his term). With his departure, the chairmanship goes to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who is relinquishing his long-time position atop the Budget Committee to take on this role.

Domenici also returns as chair of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, giving him a degree of control over the Department of Energy (DOE) not seen since former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) chaired both in the early 1990s. The failure of the 107th Congress to pass a comprehensive energy bill means that Domenici’s committee will have a major role to play in crafting the next version. One thing that will not change is an attention to issues important to New Mexico — including scientific activities at the state’s DOE national labs — since the previous chairman, and now ranking Democrat, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also hails from there.

Perhaps the most dramatic change will be at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which had been chaired by Sen. Jeffords. The new chair is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who takes over because the previous Republican chairman, Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), was defeated in his primary election. Inhofe has indicated that his top legislative priority is passage of the next highway bill, one of the most massive pieces of legislation that Congress considers. The last bill, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, authorized $217 billion over six years. It runs out in September. Other Inhofe priorities include reauthorization of Army Corps of Engineers water projects, strengthening security at chemical and nuclear power facilities, and accelerating cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks (the delightful acronym LUST). The administration is pressing Inhofe to give priority to the president’s Clear Skies proposal, which would tighten regulation on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions.

House leadership asserts control

Without a party switch, the House will experience far less change than the Senate, but the House leadership is taking advantage of several retirements to signal an end to the seniority-based system that still holds sway in the Senate. More junior members have been elevated to chairmanships as a reward for loyalty to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and new Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas). The changes do not affect chairmen continuing from the previous Congress, such as Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) at the Energy and Commerce Committee and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) atop the Science Committee. But it does serve notice.

In the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) continues as chairman, but in December the House leadership won the power to veto Young’s replacements for retiring chairmen of the Interior and the Energy and Water Subcommittees. With the leadership’s blessing, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) has been given the Interior Subcommittee nod — a plum assignment because of its control over national parks — while Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) takes over the Energy and Water Subcommittee. A former tree farmer, Taylor has compiled a staunch conservative record representing the westernmost part of North Carolina. By contrast, Hobson is considered a moderate and has served as a close advisor to the speaker. Taylor had previously chaired the small Legislative subcommittee while Hobson chaired the Military Construction subcommittee.

The retirement of Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah) opened up the chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, which oversees the Department of the Interior and other public land agencies. Here, House leaders jumped over several more senior members to appoint Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) as Hansen’s successor. Since the Republican takeover of the House in 1995, this committee has been controlled by westerners whose states include the bulk of the nation’s public lands. Pombo until recently chaired the House Western Caucus, a group of conservative western lawmakers pressing for greater local control over decisions regarding public lands. Early on in his congressional career, Pombo was tapped by leadership to lead a task force to reform the Endangered Species Act to enhance recognition of private property rights.

In general, Pombo can be expected to continue Hansen’s efforts to roll back environmental restrictions on resource development and recreational use and to limit the power of the executive branch to establish national monuments. But also like his predecessor, Pombo can expect greater success within his committee than on the House floor, where eastern Republicans often sided with Democrats to revise or reject the committee’s bills {emdash} a reminder that the power of the chair often needs to be augmented by the art of compromise.

Applegate is the American Geological Institute’s Director of Government Affairs and Editor of Geotimes. E-mail: Background on these issues is available on AGI's Government Affairs Web Site.

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