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Political Scene

Stacking Up the New Congress
Emily Lehr Wallace

In October, Geotimes reported on how geoscience issues played into the race for the White House as well as some prominent U.S. Senate races. At the time the story was written, pollsters were telling us that the issues weighing heavily on the minds of voters were the war on terror and the strength of the economy. And while those issues had some impact, along with science topics in some regions, pollsters now tell us voters were most concerned with values issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, gay adoption and stem cell research. These value issues were key in electing a solidly Republican Congress, which goes to session this month.

Among some key Senate races, incumbency was also a powerful tool: Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) all kept their congressional seats. Citizens in each of these states were tuned into issues important to the fiscal health and resources of their states and the country — from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to nuclear waste disposal.

It was a “lifestyle” issue, however, that in the end proved disastrous for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D), who lost his seat to then-Rep. John Thune (R), in the hotly contested South Dakota Senate race. Although ethanol production was a hot-button topic, they both supported increased production and use of the alternative fuel to benefit the state's corn-producing farmers. Thus, the energy issue effectively became a moot point in the campaign. Instead, it was Thune's attacks on Daschle's “out-of-touch” lifestyle, complete with fancy house and expensive cars, which probably turned the tide for Thune.

Less than one-third of this new class holds a bachelor's degree as their highest educational degree.

Thune is part of the new class of Congress — 35 new representatives and 10 new senators. Like Thune, many of these new members are not new to politics or elected office. Eleven have had long-time careers in elected state government. They have been serving in state houses across the country, in many cases, for several terms. Fully one-third of the new class are lawyers, many of whom served as district attorneys or judges before making a run for Congress.

Others have advanced degrees in government, higher education, business, theology, divinity, diplomacy, social work and public administration — with three medical doctors, 12 master's degrees holders, and three Ph.D.s. Less than one-third of this new class holds a bachelor's degree as their highest educational degree. These members studied English, history, accounting, political science, economics, business and international relations. Newly elected Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) received his bachelor's degree in biology and public policy from Brown University. He went on to become the Louisiana State Health Secretary. He is the only scientist in this new class and will join an elite fraternity of lawmakers with a science background — less than 2 percent of those serving in the 109th Congress. Scientists who were reelected include physicists Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.), chemists John W. Olver (D-Mass.) and Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), psychologists Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and Brian Baird (D-Wash.), and human physiology research scientist Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).

Those members not professionally engaged in science, the other 98 percent of Congress, spent their professional lives as public servants, realtors, practicing attorneys, teachers, farmers or ministers. There are three veterans in this class. And two members did not complete college at all, one of whom is Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R) from Newnan, Ga., who calls himself "a real-world lawmaker, not an ivory-tower type." He started a home-building business in the 1970s. He first ran for Congress and lost in 1988. In 1992, he was elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives and rose through the ranks to be Republican leader in 2000.

Shortly after being sworn in, the new members will be assigned to committees in which they will help craft legislation over the next two years. The 29-member House Steering Committee is responsible for reconfirming sitting chairs and selecting new chairs for House Standing Committees. The House Republican Conference ratifies these choices. The Steering Committee also assigns members to committees, with the exception of the House Rules Committee and the House Administration Committee, which are appointed by the Speaker. The Senate has a similar selection process.

Assignments are based on seniority first. Then, the Steering Committee will fill committee vacancies by assigning members from the newly sworn-in class of legislators. Sometimes a committee assignment is important because of the district that the member serves. For instance, a member with several military bases in his or her district will likely want to be on the Armed Services Committee. Other times, the Steering Committee assigns members based on their demonstrated interest or expertise in a topic. That's why Republican Reps. Bartlett (who has a Ph.D. in physiology) and Ehlers (who has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics) serve on the House Science Committee.

Whether the new members of Congress will end up on science committees remains to be seen, but regardless, they will be voting on important science policy issues once they come to the floor. The real work will begin after the presidential inauguration on January 20. All legislation that was left incomplete at the end of last year is null and void. All bills must be reintroduced and begin the legislative process anew.

This year's agenda includes energy legislation, the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, the proposed reorganization of NOAA, climate change legislation and the reauthorization of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Act. Geoscientists have a tremendous opportunity to serve as a much-needed resource for both new and old members of Congress, the vast majority of whom weren't schooled in the earth sciences. The more we engage these members and their staff, the more science will inform their policy decisions.

Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Email:

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