For U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the lesson of his first four months as chairman of the House Science Committee is that maintaining bipartisanship in this day and age is as difficult as rocket science.
When Smith, whose district includes parts of South, West and Central Austin, assumed the helm of the committee at the beginning of the year, he did something that he said no other chairman has done in at least half a century — he called a bipartisan retreat.
What’s more, he invited none other than Bill Nye the Science Guy to talk science to the members.
Nye is a popular science educator whose four-minute video, “Climate Change 101,” crisply lays out the causes and consequences of global warming and ends on this unambiguous note: “The current climate crisis is reality. We can’t wish it away. What we can do is cease the debate and denial and move on to solutions.”
“The day before the retreat I had two members of the Science Committee come up to me and say that Bill Nye had personally campaigned against them in their district,” Smith recalled in an interview last week.
That presumably included Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who said last year that evolution, embryology, and the “big bang” theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell,” and who Nye, in return, said was “by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space and technology.”
Nonetheless, the retreat went on as scheduled, Nye, Broun and all, and Smith said it went beautifully
“Bill Nye was a hit,” Smith said. “I got a half-dozen emails from Democratic members saying, `great bipartisan retreat, thanks for doing it, we’re off to a great start.’”
Last week, while in Austin, Smith talked about wind power with students at Oak Hill Elementary School and rocketry with students at Akins High School, and he joined a thousand students at Fredericksburg High School for a live video discussion he had arranged with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy on board the International Space Station.
The congressman, who as a high school student at Texas Military Institute in San Antonio had snagged the Bausch and Lomb science award, was reveling in being Lamar Smith, the science guy.
But, back in Washington, his carefully crafted bipartisanship seemed to be coming undone after the release of a letter from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, the ranking Democrat on the committee, accusing Smith of trying to politicize the process for selecting winners of National Science Foundation grants.
Johnson’s letter lit the blogosphere on fire with considerable Smith-bashing, and it led Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, to post an article at the National Journal site caustically suggesting the creation of a Congressional Yahoo Caucus, with Smith as its newest member.
Ornstein, co-author of, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, ” described Smith as “a smart guy (intelligence is not the determining factor here) who this week floated the notion of having every science grant application at the National Science Foundation pass a key hurdle — explaining how the idea would directly benefit the American people. This went beyond the previous efforts by many yahoos to defund all political science grants to attack grants in every scientific area, social and hard sciences alike, and ultimately make the peer-review process, the linchpin of scientific enterprise, superfluous.”
Smith was taken aback by Johnson’s broadside about what was only a “draft for discussion.”
“This was a first step in what we hoped would be a bipartisan initiative to improve accountability of NSF grants,” Smith said in a statement. “It is disappointing that instead of accepting the invitation to work together to prioritize the spending of taxpayer dollars, some have chosen to play politics and misrepresent the nature of the draft bill.”
At a recent hearing, Republicans suggested that the titles of some National Science Foundation-funded projects — such as “Picturing Animals in National Geographic” and “Regulating Accountability and Transparency in China’s Dairy Industry” — sounded unworthy of American taxpayer dollars.
In his Austin interview, Smith effused about the National Science Foundation.
“NSF grants do a wonderful amount of good,” he said. “They are one of of the best investment in the future I know of. All five Americans who won Nobel Prizes in 2012 at one point or another were recipients of NSF grants.”
Smith, who entered Congress in 1987, remains committed to bringing his committee back into harmony.
“Bipartisanship is not only a worthy goal, it’s a practical goal. With the House Republican and the Senate Democrat, nothing is going to get through without it,” he said.
And, he added, in a formulation no longer much in vogue, “I’d much rather have half a loaf than no loaf any day.”
Before last week’s brouhaha, he had had some success in lowering the temperature of the committee’s deliberations. An April 25 subcommittee hearing on climate issues was less contentious than past hearings on the subject.
Smith has commonly been characterized as a “climate skeptic,” as he was by NPR science correspondent Ira Flatow when he assumed the chairmanship. Of the evidence for climate change, Smith said, “I think there may be cases where the data or metrics were massaged in order to guarantee a certain result.” But his skepticism seems less about whether the phenomenon is real, as about the cost-benefit efficacy for the United States of trying to ameliorate it.
“We’re at the very beginning of the process. We’ll have a number of hearings on the subject. I don’t want to take anything for granted. I really want to find out what the evidence shows. I haven’t drawn any hard conclusions about climate. One of the things I am determined to do on the committee is to get back to good science, not politically correct science,” Smith said.
If so, he might need to call in Wendy Swire, who, like Nye, was at the committee retreat, explaining the techniques pioneered by William Ury in “Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” a 1981 bestseller that Smith picked up at an airport back before bipartisanship went out of fashion.