Science Policy & Funding AGU News

Getting Down to Business: Committee Seats Set in 115th Congress

Appointments of a new chairman and two new ranking members may affect how key panels handle federal funding and oversight of the Earth and space sciences in the next 2 years.


Committees are the cornerstone of Congress. Originally, congressional committees were ad hoc, formed temporarily to address some of the nation’s pressing issues. However, as our government matured, standing committees became more prominent. As President Woodrow Wilson once stated, the government of the United States can be described as a “government by the chairmen of the Standing Committees of Congress.”

At the beginning of each Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate undertake several administrative duties, including assigning members of Congress to various committees. Although members of Congress submit their preferences for committee assignments, seniority often plays a large role in committee placements, particularly leadership roles.

The party that holds the majority (right now, the Republicans) determines the chairs of each committee. The minority party (right now, the Democrats) serves as ranking members (essentially, the leader of the minority). In addition to controlling the chair of each committee, the majority party also nominates the chairs of subcommittees, controls the agenda of the committees and subcommittees, and receives greater funding and staff. Subcommittees also have ranking members.

Only very recently have final committee appointments been made in both chambers of the 115th Congress. Now it’s up to each new chairman to shape the policy agendas of their committees. Committee members, old and new, will also have their priorities shaped by their backgrounds, priorities, and constituent needs.

Together, many committees in the House and Senate will impact science. As such, knowing which members are in key roles on these committees is important for understanding the science policy landscape.

Senate Committee Appointments

Senate Appropriations Committee

Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a supporter of NASA space science, returns as the committee chairman. He is joined by a new ranking member, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), replacing now retired Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was always a strong advocate for science funding. Whereas Senators Cochran and Mikulski formed a good working relationship, only time will tell how the relationship of Senators Cochran and Leahy will evolve. In previous statements, Senator Cochran has indicated a potentially productive working relationship, even stating, “I’m fond of [Senator Leahy].” Although Sen. Leahy has not been outspoken about science, he lists innovation to promote jobs and the economy among his priorities.

Appropriations committees create federal spending bills and thereby play a major role in deciding how Congress allocates funding for federal agencies and programs, including all science agencies and their respective programs. In 2016, Sen. Cochran, who represents Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, voiced support for the fiscal year 2017 science appropriations bill because of its funding for the Space Launch System and a research vessel dedicated to the Gulf region. In his statement praising Sen. Mikulski’s service, Sen. Cochran mentioned their “shared commitment to national security, scientific research, education, and economic development.”

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has become the new ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), which oversees funding for most federal science agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and will be working alongside veteran chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Shelby’s long-standing support of NASA comes as no surprise considering that the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which manages the Space Launch System, resides in his home state of Alabama. Sen. Shaheen, a former teacher and member of the Senate Committee on Small Business, has long supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and innovation. As the appropriations process ramps up, many will look to the CJS Subcommittee leadership to continue the tradition of bipartisan work in hopes of ensuring robust science funding.

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) returns for his second term as the committee’s chairman, joined by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) as ranking member. Upon being selected again as chairman, Sen. Thune stated, “I look forward to working with Ranking Member Bill Nelson and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on issues at the forefront of innovation and competitiveness, consumer protection, science, transportation, and economic growth.” Sen. Nelson, a former astronaut who rode in the space shuttle Columbia and orbited around Earth for 6 days, advocates strongly for science, particularly space science. He has sponsored and cosponsored several pro-science bills, including, most recently, the Scientific Integrity Act. Because the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (CST) is an authorization committee rather than an appropriations committee, it oversees policies related to federal research, such as bills authorizing the activities of NASA, NOAA, and NSF, but does not directly control how government funds are spent.

House Committee Appointments

House Appropriations Committee

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) finished his term as chairman of this committee at the end of the last Congress. Now Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is chair of the committee, working with ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). As the former ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, Rep. Frelinghuysen has been a long-standing advocate for science and technology. According to his website, Rep. Frelinghuysen believes that “research and development and innovation in our laboratories and in our schools is what makes our country stronger.” Rep. Lowey has also been a strong supporter of science, speaking out on the House floor about the importance of funding climate research. Like the Senate Appropriations Committee, this House committee appropriates funding for all federal science agencies.

House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science

Two representatives who have been supportive of scientific research, Chairman John Culberson (R-Texas) and Ranking Member José Serrano (D-N.Y.), will lead this subcommittee in the new Congress. Rep. Serrano has used scientific research to inform environmental projects in his district, such as cleanup of the Bronx River. In 2016, he pushed legislation that would establish grants to support STEM programs at Hispanic-serving institutions. Rep. Culberson’s website highlights his commitment to science, stating “our investment in basic scientific research spurs innovation and technology and generates long-term economic growth.”

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee

Representatives Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Eddie B. Johnson (D-Texas) continue to lead this authorization committee, which plays a role similar to that of the Senate CST Committee of overseeing scientific research for most federal science agencies, including NSF, NOAA, and NASA. Rep. Johnson, the first female and first African American ranking member of this committee, continues to be a strong proponent of science and diversity. She sponsors and cosponsors pro-science legislation and champions science during committee hearings.

Chairman Smith will continue to set the agenda for the Science Committee, which has included a strong investigative element looking into areas of science that Rep. Smith has found problematic. Those areas include federal agency climate research and the use of science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For example, Chairman Smith has sponsored bills like the Secret Science Reform Act, which would limit how EPA can use scientific research to inform its policy decisions, and the America COMPETES Act, which provides direction as to how NSF should operate. Both bills raised concerns within the scientific community. Conversely, he worked on a bipartisan basis to craft the Department of Energy Research and Innovation Act, which promoted strong energy research programs.

Stay Tuned

All of the above committees are expected to become increasingly active in the coming weeks as they schedule hearings and votes on legislation within their jurisdictions, including the all-important federal spending bills. As the committees get down to business, science policy experts will be among many others watching with keen interest how the new and ongoing relationships among committee leaders shape what happens in these important legislative crucibles.

—Timia Crisp (email: [email protected]; @timiacrisp), Analyst, Public Affairs, AGU

Citation: Crisp, T. (2017), Getting down to business: Committee seats set in 115th Congress, Eos, 98, Published on 03 March 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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