An Interview With Bart Gordon

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN) enjoys being called the fastest man in Congress, in recognition of his performance each spring in a 5K race that features politicians and Washington, D.C.–based journalists. But the 60-year-old chairman of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee is also quick to make a decision about his political future.

On Monday, Gordon confounded his party's leadership—and disappointed science lobbyists who consider him a stalwart for their cause—by announcing that he plans to retire next year after serving 26 years in the House of Representatives. "I started thinking about it over Thanksgiving and it just evolved," he tells ScienceInsider.

Gordon is the fourth moderate Democrat in the last month to take such a step, fueling speculation about whether Democrats can hold on to a majority status claimed in 2006 and strengthened in 2008. Pundits were quick to point to a recent poll by his likely opponent suggesting that voters wanted a fresh face, or the fact that last year Republican John McCain carried his middle Tennessee district by a 62-to-37 margin over Democrat Barack Obama in their race for the White House. But in an interview with Insider, Gordon says that politics isn't the reason why he's stepping down.

"I feel that I have done about all you can do as a member of Congress," he says. "I've chaired a committee, I've passed landmark legislation. And it was time to do something else."

Representative Jerry Costello (D–IL), a 21-year veteran from southwestern Illinois, has already thrown his hat into the ring. "As the second ranking Democrat on the Science and Technology Committee, I am interested in and will pursue the chairmanship of the full committee and look forward to discussing it with our Democratic leadership and my colleagues in our caucus,” Costello declared in a statement issued a few hours after Gordon announced his decision. And assuming the Democrats retain control of the House, the path ahead seems clear, as the third-ranking Democrat, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), has signaled her support for him.

But Gordon has another year to go before handing over the gavel. In a conversation with ScienceInsider, the self-effacing Southerner said he's still working to achieve the party's agenda for advancing science. He's also confident that, once he leaves, his colleagues will continue down the same road.

Q: What's ahead in 2010?
B.G.: My first priority for next year will be re authorization of the COMPETES Act and making sure that the Innovation Agenda is front and center.

Q: But isn't it better to be on the inside?
I think I've planted the flag, and that the blueprint for the future is set.

Q:  Any obstacles?
This is a tough budget period, and we have to continue to adequately fund basic and applied research and improve our STEM workforce. We got [the COMPETES Act] fully funded, but we need to continue doing that.

Q: Any revisions in the offing?
We haven't identified anything, but I'm sure that there are ways to improve it. One of the things we've been doing is inventorying all the current STEM education programs, and we're finding tens of millions of additional dollars being spent on programs that nobody knew about. That's on top of what the previous Administration found [under the Academic Competitiveness Council], in programs that they didn't count. And we want to be sure that those programs are well-coordinated.

Q: Did you find any redundancies?
That's all to be determined, once we get them fully inventoried.

Q: What about Representative Costello as chair?
I think he'll carry on very well. … He's a subcommittee chair on the transportation [committee]. But he's been on the science committee for a long time and he's very able. It's sort of like, if you're at Churchill Downs, the horse does the running and you just hold on. It's the staff that does the work, and I just try to give them some direction.

Q: Will you support anyone for your seat?
No. That's another reason I decided to get out early, to let any candidate with the interest have a chance to get out and meet the district.

Q: Do you see science playing a role in the campaign?
I hope so. I hope that the constituents recognize some of what we've been trying to do, in terms of 21st century workforce and jobs creation, and that they'll ask for more.