You're looking at a man who will soon sit in a powerful chair. His name is Representative Lamar Smith, he’s controversial (especially in internet circles), and he's just been appointed to lead a committee in Congress — making him a key power player in crafting the nation’s science and technology policy. In the days since he was chosen for the job by his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives, some have condemned the selection, questioning Congress’ preservation of the committee’s status quo and its ability to make appropriate appointments to positions that are considered vital to the nation’s future.
Smith is set to take over his new chairmanship of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology next year, but it’s not the veteran lawmaker’s first time sitting at the head of the table in Congress. He’s leaving the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where in 2011 he proposed a copyright enforcement bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act. (SOPA did not go well for Representative Smith, or for the bill’s corporate backers that wanted some legislative C4 from Congress to blow up the internet.) But while SOPA’s controversy burns bright in recent memory, it’s just one data point of many. Since 1980, for nearly half of his life, Representative Smith has been a professional lawmaker — and most of those years have already been spent on the committee he’s about to lead.
For nearly half of his life, Smith has been a professional lawmaker
As Representative Smith enters his 27th year in Congress, he’s had plenty of time to develop a portfolio of legislation around science and technology. Let’s take a look at what he’s done, where he’s headed, and what it means for America’s future.
House of Committees
I'm just a bill
Yes I'm only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I'm stuck in committee
And I'll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
A few words on Congress are necessary to convey the power and opportunity Smith will possess when he takes over as chairman of the science committee in 2013. It starts, simply enough, with how a bill becomes a law — there’s immense power in process. While members of Congress filter down to the chamber floor every now and then, the real business of government happens across the street from the US Capitol building: in the meeting rooms of congressional committees.
Committees divvy up Congress' dirty work
Committees divvy up Congress’ dirty work: bill writing, investigating, debating, editing, and the overall stewardship of legislation. And while some committees are more powerful than others, the chairmen of most standing committees or their subcommittees have the ability to set the policy agenda. In short, committees have extensive authority over bills, and can prevent them from making it for a vote on the House floor. Within their own realms of policy, committees and committee chairmen are the primary gatekeepers of law.
The science committee oversees federal energy research and development, astronautical research, space exploration, and other activities. It’s a permanent legislative panel that has jurisdiction over several federal agencies, including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Energy. It has several subcommittees that further specialize on various issues, including space and aeronautics, energy and the environment, research and science education, and technology and innovation. The committee does not directly fund programs in these areas — that’s a job reserved for the powerful appropriations committee — but it does play an important role in authorizing their ongoing existence and setting their priorities.
The committee plays an important role in authorizing programs and setting priorities
NASA's mission is an example of the science committee's authority. The committee exercised its routine powers in 2010 when it authorized NASA’s activities for fiscal years 2010-2013, shifting NASA’s focus on commercial spaceflight with additional funding, and ordering the agency to spend $11 billion over three years to build a new spacecraft capable of reaching an asteroid by 2020, among other measures. Because agencies and programs are often reauthorized in legislation that covers multiple years, some are susceptible to major shifts when political leadership turns over. And they're sensitive to the individual and party preferences of committee leaders.
While the president plays an important role in the process — he submits a yearly budget along with priorities for federal agencies (like decisions about space exploration) — Congress wields the most power over the government’s purse, and ultimately its policy.
The Representative from Texas
Lamar Seeligson Smith is a Representative for the 21st district of Texas: a stretch of land winding between San Antonio and Austin that’s home to about 700,000 people. His official biography offers just a few personal details: he’s a 5th generation Texan, a native of San Antonio, and a graduate of Yale University and the Southern Methodist University School of Law. A husband, a father of two, and a Christian Scientist. A former family rancher.
Smith’s career path hasn’t taken many turns. He spent two years as a business and financial writer at The Christian Science Monitor, after which he pursued Congress’ favorite trade: law. After being admitted to the State bar of Texas in 1975, he practiced in San Antonio for six years. In 1981 he was elected as a state representative, reaching Congress in 1986. He hasn’t left since.
"I won the Bausch & Lomb Science Award in high school."
While he’s a lawyer and a lawmaker by training, Smith says he has a soft spot for science. In a statement given to The Hill last month, when he was competing with two Republican colleagues for the committee chair, Smith offered a few anecdotes to sum up his interest in the committee. "Long ago and far away, I won the Bausch & Lomb Science Award in high school, studied astronomy and physics in college, and later earned my pilot’s license," he said. "So I have had a longstanding interest in subjects overseen by the science committee."
In any event, there’s an obvious practical reason for the opportunity. Smith reached a term limit as Judiciary committee chairman, a limit that was reimposed by the GOP in 2010, and he was forced to step down. Since Congress often chooses committee leaders based on seniority (Smith was the senior most member who hadn’t already served as chairman in the science committee), he was already on a short list of potential candidates, regardless of his science credentials. Those credentials are arguably important for the creation of balanced, informed, and effective policy, but Congress’ hat-sorting traditions aren’t designed to appoint leadership based on subject matter expertise.
Most of Smith's science credentials come straight from Congress
While Smith admits to having studied some science in college, most of his science credentials come straight from Congress: he’s already served on the science committee for the past 26 years. His votes reflect a pattern of opposition to climate change and alternative energy efforts, sympathy to large industry in matters of copyright and patent law, deference to law enforcement on privacy issues, and moral policing of the internet.
Smith’s record on energy and the environment represents one of his most controversial policy arenas. He voted to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, voted no several times on tax credits for renewable energy and incentives for energy production and conservation, voted against raising fuel efficiency standards, and rejected implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Opponents of the appointment have observed in recent days that Smith, like his predecessor Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), have expressed skepticism about man-made global warming — a question that suffers no serious objection in scientific literature, but has become a contentious topic of debate after conservative groups cast it as a social problem in the 1990s.
Representative Smith’s similarity to fellow lawmakers on global warming, including the former chair, indicate that the committee has already been in the throes of dubious scientific denial. Former chair Rep. Hall drew similar headlines when he took over the science committee in 2011, after he vowed to investigate the White House’s climate policies based on questions of global warming’s scientific validity. "I’ve had people tell me if we had all the money in the world, put it in Texas Stadium, people couldn’t change nature’s future one iota," Hall told Politico outside of a Democrat-sponsored hearing on climate science. It doesn’t stop there: several of Smith’s committee cohorts, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Dan Benishek (R-MI), Mo Brooks (R-AL), and Paul Broun (R-GA) are fellow skeptics. Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), master of the female anatomy, was also a committee member before losing his Senate bid in the November election.
Smith represented the least extreme choice for committee chairman
Despite Smith’s reluctance to admit that human behavior is a major factor in climate change, he represented the least extreme choice for committee chairman. As Mother Jones points out, the two alternatives may have been even worse for climate science: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has said that global warming is a scam that’s part of a "radical agenda to change our way of life," and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) thinks climate change is a "massive international scientific fraud." In 2009, Smith denounced major news networks for biased coverage of "Climategate" — an alleged fraud involving suppressed temperature data that was eventually debunked by the scientific community. Smith's office did not respond to The Verge's requests for comment.
Beyond climate science, Smith’s voting record reflects few victories for digital advocates. He voted to kill funding for National Public Radio, voted to offer retroactive immunity for warrantless surveillance by telecommunications companies, rejected net neutrality, voted to increase fines for indecent broadcasting, and voted to ban internet gambling using a credit card.
Bills that members sponsor or introduce themselves carry more weight, and some of Smith’s recent legislative efforts have successfully supported science and tech. Smith introduced the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 — an immigration reform bill that would provide foreigners skilled in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics with more opportunities to obtain residency in the US. Smith wrote of the bill that "regrettably, not enough Americans are getting educated and trained in STEM fields," and that "for America to be the world’s economic leader, we must have access to the world’s best talent." The bill, if passed, would eliminate a program that offered 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries with low levels of immigration to the US, instead offering those visas to STEM candidates.
"They want a heart transplant, they got a haircut and maybe some new shoes."
Smith also sponsored the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, one of the biggest reform bills to pass through the last Congress. Signed by the president in 2011, the act is the biggest change to patent law in a half-century, changing the system to privilege the first inventor to file, and not the first to invent. While the bill was a bipartisan legislative success, it left some patent reform advocates dissatisfied, who argue that the change promotes big business at the expense of small businesses and inventors. As our own patent expert Nilay Patel said in response to the America Invents Act, "it’s like a patent reform bill that didn’t really achieve patent reform. They want a heart transplant, they got a haircut and maybe some new shoes."
And then, there’s SOPA.
The fight against SOPA, led by web advocates and several prominent internet companies, revealed some key facts about Smith’s campaign support and his legislative inspirations. The entertainment lobby laid a heavy hand in the crafting the bill, reaffirming Congress’ revolving door with private industry. Politico reported that former staff of Smith’s office, and the Senate Judiciary Committee, each accepted jobs with two of the lobbying firms backing SOPA and PIPA — helping to write the bills. And Chris Dodd, who served as a senator for thirty years and swore he’d never take money from lobbyists, joined the Motion Picture Association of America as its Chairman and CEO, grabbing a $1.5 million base salary and a $100 million lobbying budget (Dodd and the MPAA were chief supporters of SOPA). By several accounts, the bill is one of the worst internet laws to have been considered by Congress, and would have allowed copyright owners to go after pirates by altering the internet’s fundamental architecture.
While the entertainment industry outspent the tech industry four to one on SOPA sponsors, Smith’s industry ties aren’t isolated to Hollywood. Some of his biggest supporters include major telecoms like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, Cox, and AT&T, and tech companies including Dell, Microsoft, Google, and Sony. It’s not clear how these relationships will play out in committee in the coming years, though as SOPA revealed, Smith hasn’t been very shy about appeasing his benefactors.
Science and technology pervades human life across the globe. Its manifestation in consumer life — in the form of things like cellphones, tablets, and internet access — shows a breakneck pace of research, development, innovation, and production. (Several editors at The Verge may disagree on this point, but in the long view, the wait for the next must-have Android update is something considerably less than a blip in the grueling emergence of our species.) To put it mildly, this stuff matters. So why isn’t Congress hiring more scientists and engineers to do the job?
Well, that’s the tricky part. As it stands, there aren’t a ton of non-lawyer nerds serving in Congress, and it’s not an easy feat to insert any particular type of person into the legislative body (well, that is unless you happen to be a middle-aged white male lawyer). Scientists and technologists have to decide it’s worth running for public office, then win on a platform that must necessarily be broader than the area of their own expertise, and then spend some time learning the ropes before gaining a meaningful degree of seniority.
The question many are asking of Congress isn't a completely fair one
The question many are asking of Congress — why haven’t you hired more science types? — isn’t a completely fair one. Assuming for a moment that, in a perfect world, Congress was littered with expert scientists and technologists, at some point we’d simply be trading one area of vital expertise for another. That’s not to say the current ratio of experts is suitable, it only asks that a diverse balance be required. A practical, charitable view of Congress accepts that members can’t humanly be experts on every subject.
Unfortunately, such charity does not aid the cause of Lamar Smith or his cohort of skeptics in the House of Representatives. While members are not required or expected to be experts on every imaginable topic, they have the ability, and arguably the responsibility, to rigorously investigate the consequences of the laws they are about to impose. With SOPA, Lamar Smith showed remarkably poor judgement in this area, calling only content industry representatives to testify in support of the bill without hearing meaningful dissent from concerned stakeholders — behavior that is anathema to a democratic institution involved in the enterprise of truth and fairness.
That kind of conduct would be bad enough to stain the integrity of any Congressional committee member. But for one charged with furthering the country’s scientific inquiry, it’s a national disgrace.