WASHINGTON--Now that the dust has settled after yesterday's elections, the new political scene in Washington strikingly resembles the old. So don't expect any dramatic shifts in national science policy and funding levels in the near future. New faces in congressional committees, however, will alter the landscape in subtler ways for a host of federal R&D programs.
Representative George Brown (D-CA), one of science's staunchest allies, won a cliffhanger race with Republican Linda Wilde. Brown captured 50.6% of the votes, winning by a margin of only 1200. But because the Republicans retain control of the House, Brown will not recapture the chair of the Science Committee that he was forced to relinquish in 1995. That job is almost certain to go to Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who won nearly 75% of the vote in his race with Democrat Floyd Brenholt. The current chair, Representative Bob Walker (R-PA), is retiring. Another veteran committee member will be missing as well next January. Representative Harold Volkmer (D-MO), an outspoken critic of Republican science policies during the past 2 years, lost his race to Republican Kenny Hulshof.
The news among Republican freshmen was mixed. Representative Dick Chrysler (R-MI), who championed dismantlement of the Commerce Department, garnered less than 47% of the vote in his district, losing to Democrat Debbie Stabenow. But Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), who argued in favor of abolishing the Department of Energy (DOE), held on to his seat with 50% of the vote, narrowly defeating Democrat Randall Rathbun.
In the Senate there were few upsets, although Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) lost to Democrat Tim Johnson by about 10,000 votes in one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country. Pressler chairs the Senate Commerce Committee which authorizes science spending; it's unclear who will take over that position when the new Senate convenes in January. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), who won reelection easily, is next in line, but he currently chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee and is likely to replace retiring Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) won handily and will return as chair of the appropriations panel that oversees DOE spending--including the two national labs in his state.
Although the bigger political scene may not seem so different, there will be plenty of new eyes to scrutinize the details of federal science and technology efforts. That could translate into big changes for specific research programs--stay tuned.