Democrats won back control of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, giving them the right to call the shots in the 110th Congress that convenes in January. For scientists, that will mean dealing with a combination of some old faces returning to lead key committees and new ones taking the reins. And although all these politicians have track records, even the pundits admit that it's too early to predict which issues will dominate the next 2 years, let alone how successful legislators will be in working with a president from the opposing party. Adding to the uncertainty is a close race in Virginia that will determine control of the Senate.
At first glance, the new chair of the House Science Committee, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), shares many of the same interests as his predecessor, retiring Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). That list includes increasing spending on science, improving U.S. science and math education, developing new energy technologies to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, and ensuring that government scientists are free to disseminate their results. Gordon says that legislation to boost U.S. competitiveness "will be a priority" for Democrats and that he also expects the panel to take up a reauthorization of programs at the National Science Foundation. The panel oversees agencies that fund the bulk of civilian, nonmedical federal research, although it does not appropriate funds.
Elected yesterday to his 12th 2-year term, Gordon has maintained a low profile in Congress and tended to his rural but rapidly urbanizing Tennessee district. But he's always wanted to chair the committee, he says, and as the voice of minority Democrats since 2003 he has been aggressively partisan on contentious issues such as climate change and the alleged censorship of federal scientists. "I hope that we can give scientists a chance to tell their side of the story," he adds, referring to complaints that political appointees have tried to prevent them from discussing their research.
The change in leadership at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is likely to be more noticeable. The new chair, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), led strident hearings on scientific fraud and abuse of indirect cost recovery by universities in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Academic lobbyists suggest he may extend an earlier committee probe into conflicts of interest by NIH intramural scientists, which led to a crackdown on industry consulting.
The outgoing chair, Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), spent much of the year shepherding through an NIH reauthorization bill that would raise the agency's budget 5% a year through 2009, limit the total number of institutes, and give the NIH director more authority to fund transinstitute research. The Senate has yet to act, meaning that Dingell can begin with a clean slate next spring. This year, Democrats had sought amendments that among other things would give NIH a larger budget hike, increase funding for breast cancer, and require the reporting of clinical trial results.
Scientific research could also come up as Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) assumes chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee. Waxman's staff has investigated the politicization of science at agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an issue that is expected to resurface in the Democrat-controlled House.
The big news for environmentalists is the defeat of Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), who chaired the House Resources Committee and became a target for his attempted revision of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental legislation. Pombo, a seven-term member, was defeated by Jerry McNerney, a wind power engineer with a Ph.D. in mathematics. Boosted by environmentalists, who contributed more than $2 million to his campaign, McNerney's main issue is clean energy. The ranking Democrat on the resources panel, Nick Rahall (D-WV), will likely become chair, where he is expected to focus on mining reclamation and other issues. "It puts a halt to the agenda to rewrite the Endangered Species Act," says an approving Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club.
As for the Senate, Democrat James Webb has claimed victory in Virginia, but his opponent George Allen has not conceded. A recount could take weeks. The emergence of any new science agenda is likely to take even longer, because the Senate is traditionally a more freewheeling body that resists strict party control.