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Climate Politics Almanac: Science and Subcommittees

We conclude our leadership elections series with the Science Committee vacancy, as well as an overview of subcommittee positions to be filled early next year.

We continue our look at the 2023 Democratic leadership elections with the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and several subcommittee vacancies of interest to climate hawks.

Science, Space, and Technology

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) with four generations of her family at the unveiling of her Science committee portrait. Credit: Todd Gillman

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) is retiring after four years of serving as the first Black woman to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which has jurisdiction over most non-defense federal research and development programs. Accordingly, this Committee plays a vital role in overseeing climate science and technological research programs housed at NASA, DOE, EPA, NOAA, the National Weather Service, and more. 

In Losing Earth, Nathaniel Rich described Rep. Al Gore Jr. using a new oversight subcommittee chair position on the House Science Committee in the 1980s, then considered by most in Congress to be a “legislative backwater,” to push for historic hearings on the greenhouse effect.

The incoming Republican chair, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), had a reasonably cordial relationship with Johnson as the ranking member, supporting increased funding for science and technology while, unsurprisingly, vigorously defending the natural gas industry with the claim that extracting more methane fights global warming and attacking regulation of methane pollution.

Though no Democratic member has publicly expressed interest in the top spot on the Science Committee, plausible Committee Democrats in contention include Reps. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Ami Bera (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.).

Bill Foster

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) on the Science Committee. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

First elected in a 2007 special election to replace the outgoing Speaker Denny Hastert, Rep. Foster has represented the Chicago suburbs of Aurora and Joliet for just over a decade, and his district has gradually become safer, although it was viewed as nominally competitive in 2022. Foster will probably try to lay a claim to this position by virtue of the fact that for many years he has been “the only scientist in Congress.” A Ph.D physicist by training, Foster worked for 22 years at Fermilab, precisely the type of research facility that the Science Committee helps fund and oversee. A New Democrat who fended off a teachers union-backed 2020 primary challenge from Will County Board Member Rachel Ventura (now a progressive state senator-elect), Foster has let his centrist streak show most frequently as a Financial Services Committee Member. Foster supported a substantial weakening of Dodd-Frank by voting for S. 2155 in 2018, among other pieces of financial deregulation.

Other Contenders

Rep. Bonamici is a CPC member whose voting record places her squarely in the median for a Democratic member of Congress. While not known for outspoken climate leadership, Bonamici was recently part of Speaker Pelosi’s delegation to COP27. Despite representing a district that has gradually gotten safer since he first won a close election in 2012, Rep. Bera has one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats. He has voted to weaken the review process for LNG export terminals and cut funding for clean energy programs. Most recently, he was one of only 16 Democratic votes against a bipartisan breakthrough on antitrust reform. Since fighting antitrust reform on behalf of Silicon Valley has been a top priority for Rep. Lofgren, she may prefer to focus on those fights in Judiciary rather than going for the top spot on Science. Rep. Bowman is a climate champion and lead sponsor of the Green New Deal for Public Schools bill, but probably doesn’t have the seniority to make a viable bid. Rep. Stansbury is a former White House Council of Environmental Quality staffer who been credited with strong leadership and expertise surrounding a “just transition” and New Mexico’s “megadrought,” but is only entering her second term.

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There are also a number of vacancies for subcommittee positions, although the process for determining the top Democrat on each subcommittee will not take place until early next year, when the 118th Congress is officially in session and the full Committees have been organized. Because of the way the bidding process works, subcommittee elections are highly determined by seniority, and so our look at subcommittees will focus on the records of subcommittee Democrats who are “next in line.”

Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development

Chair David Price (D-N.C.) is retiring, leaving a vacancy atop the subcommittee that oversees funding for HUD (which is standing up a green buildings program) and DoT (which is responsible for administering an IRA program to reduce airplane pollution). Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a former environmental policy professor who represents North Chicago, is next in seniority, although he already chairs a different Appropriations subcommittee. If Quigley doesn’t switch over, the vacancy will likely to fall to Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), a CPC member who represents Princeton.

Armed Services Subcommittees on Cyber, Military Personnel, and Strategic Forces

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) is retiring, leaving a vacancy atop the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technology, and Information Systems, which has oversight over advanced DoD technology programs that will play a role in its climate preparedness plan. If Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) loses his bid for T&I, he will be favored to take over in this role. Otherwise, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a New Democrat, nuclear energy booster, and former longshot presidential candidate, will likely assume this spot.

Subcommittee on Military Personnel Chair Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is retiring from a committee with oversight over the greening of military bases, leaving CPC Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) as her likely successor.

Strategic Forces Chair Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) is retiring and leaving the subcommittee with oversight over nuclear weapons. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) will have the option of taking this subcommittee spot or remaining atop a different subcommittee. Garamendi is generally a strong CPC vote who recently stood out for pushing shipping reforms in the midst of supply chain disruption, though he has at times voted to weaken pesticides regulation. If Garamendi doesn’t want the job, it may go to Moulton or to Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), a New Dem who has the broadly pro-environmental record one might expect from a member representing Santa Barbara, but who periodically votes for low-profile financial deregulation.

Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) is retiring as the head of this Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over telecoms policy and the municipal broadband buildouts that are often framed alongside utility and grid modernization as urgent public investment priorities. This subcommittee will see a high degree of turnover among Democrats, as Doyle (who is being replaced by Green New Deal champion Summer Lee as Pittsburgh’s congressional representative) and and numerous others step down. Rep. Yvette Clark (D-N.Y.), a CPC member from Brooklyn who has sponsored the Climate Justice Act, is likely to take over.

Financial Services Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) is retiring after chairing this subcommittee with jurisdiction over many of the banking agencies that are in the process of establishing a federal climate risk supervision framework (in the 117th Congress, this subcommittee held numerous hearings on the topic). The most senior member who doesn’t already chair a full Committee or another Financial Services subcommittee is Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who caucuses with both the New Dems and the CPC, but tends to side with the New Dems on issues like Israel and antitrust. Vargas has been a vocal proponent of climate risk disclosure, however. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) is another option. His climate risk disclosure legislation formed the basis for the SEC’s proposed climate rule, and Casten has continued to stand out on Financial Services for his leadership on climate. The subcommittee’s current vice chair is Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a Green New Deal champion.

Foreign Affairs Subcommittees on Africa and the Western Hemisphere

One central question at the recent COP27 was overcoming American objections to paying for climate devastation in developing countries. A new loss and damage fund was established, but since there is reportedly “no guarantee that wealthy countries will deposit money into the fund,” monitoring that commitment will be a part of the role for whoever fills vacant subcommittee positions on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) was elected mayor of Los Angeles, and so will no longer be the top Dem on the subcommittee on Africa. As the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Green New Deal champion, would seem a strong choice to lead this subcommittee. However, House Republicans have said they plan to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee altogether, meaning that this position may fall instead to Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a New Democrat and vice chair of the corporate-funded Problem Solvers Caucus.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) is retiring, leaving the position of top Democrat for the Western Hemisphere subcommittee open. Next in line is Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a New Democrat from San Antonio who was the preferred choice of the Sunrise Movement and many other progressive groups to chair the full Committee in 2020. Castro is already the lead Democrat on the International Development (ID) subcommittee, but may be persuaded to bid for a position that will put Latin American directly within his purview. If that happens, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a Qualcomm heiress turned CPC member and Green New Deal advocate, will be in position to replace Castro on the ID subcommittee. If Castro stays put instead, it will likely leave the Western Hemisphere vacancy to Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), a Build Back Better obstructionist and founder of the House oil and gas caucus.

Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness

Rep. Val Demings’ (D-Fla.) losing campaign against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has created a vacancy leading this subcommittee, which oversees FEMA’s response to climate disasters. Next in line is Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a notorious boss and CPC member whose Houston district faces many challenges relevant to this subcommittee.

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