Meet the GOP Science Skeptics Likely to Hold Top House Science, Energy Posts

A photo illustration of Rep. John Shimkus in Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam." The Illinois Republican, a candidate for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says climate change is real but that he believes God will not destroy the earth by flood. Composite Image:; Source: AP (Shimkus), Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" (background)

Political reporting, and with it public attention, tends to focus on the top dogs in Congress—hence the recent preponderance of discussion about wrangling for Democratic leadership spots, or the many profiles that have tried to pierce presumptive Speaker John Boehner's veil of secrecy. In that shuffle, the importance of committee chairs tends to be overlooked.

In fact, those chairs have broad powers to set the agenda for Congress by deciding what their committees will take up, although the party leadership is also instrumental in making top-level strategy decisions. Case in point: Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, had wide latitude to write the original version of health-care reform, taking months to produce a final version.

While Darrell Issa's promises to be a crusader against corruption from his perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have been covered, it's worth paying more attention to the representatives likely to head the committees dealing with energy and science. As NEWSWEEK reported earlier this month, environmental groups are dreading the 112th Congress, in which the number of members who are either skeptical or outright derisive of claims of anthropogenic global warming will skyrocket. But even in that group, the contenders to chair two House committees—Energy and Commerce, and Science and Technology—stick out. Here's what they have to say on matters scientific.

  • Joe Barton, candidate for House Energy and Commerce Committee chair: The Texas congressman faces an uphill road to reclaiming the chairmanship of the committee he led from 2004 to 2006. After he'd repeatedly antagonized the GOP leadership, his apology to the then-CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, during a congressional hearing in June crossed a serious line in the sand and allowed liberal politicians and groups to lampoon Republicans as cartoonishly pro–big oil. Although party leaders are said to want to shunt him aside, he's launched a furious campaign, rallying the Republican rank and file to support him. While Barton's BP comments caused an uproar, they weren't the most aggressive statements he's made. As The Washington Post pointed out at the time, he had previously stated that humans would simply adapt to global warming, argued that wind would compensate for rising temperatures by cooling the planet, and said carbon dioxide was basically good for the world: "CO2 is odorless, colorless, tasteless—it's not a threat to human health in terms of being exposed to it. We create it as we talk back and forth. So, and if you go beyond that, on a net basis, there's ample evidence that warming generically—however it is caused—is a net benefit to mankind." (His comments, of course, don't account for the much greater volumes of carbon dioxide being produced today that don't come from respiration or conversation.)
  • John Shimkus, candidate for House Energy and Commerce Committee chair: While Barton simply ignores scientific data, another contender for the same post disputes it with recourse to other written documentation—to wit, the Bible. Illinois's Shimkus says climate change is real, a fact he observed while traveling to Greenland. However, he told Politico, there's no reason to worry, since God promised Noah after the great flood that he wouldn't deluge the world again. "I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God," he said. "And I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood." Whether Shimkus will have the opportunity to drive policies based on revelation remains to be seen, though: he's mostly seen as the third candidate in the race.
  • Fred Upton, candidate for House Energy and Commerce Committee chair: While Upton has had a more moderate record on the environment, he's recently been trying to spruce up his conservative credentials. Instead of denouncing global warming as a hoax, he has focused on attacking the Obama administration. Complaining that White House climate-change "czar" Carol Browner hasn't testified before Congress frequently enough, the Michigander has promised that he'll make her a regular presence—and punching bag—if he wins the chairmanship. Writing in the archconservative Human Events, he said, "She was the Obama administration's point person for a massive economy-killing national energy tax in the form of a cap-and-trade scheme." But some influential conservatives—from Rush Limbaugh to Erick Erickson—aren't buying Upton's road-to-Damascus narrative. The reason? It's Upton's cosponsorship of a 2007 bill that mandated the phasing out of incandescent lightbulbs in favor of more energy-efficient, longer-lasting bulbs (the bill's other major sponsor was Rep. Jane Harman of California, whose husband, Sidney Harman, owns NEWSWEEK). While seemingly harmless, that law has earned the ire of conservatives, mostly on the principle that government shouldn't be meddling in lighting (coming from the left, Kate Sheppard wrote a good rundown of the controversy in September). If Upton doesn't get the chair, that law could be the major reason.
  • Ralph Hall, candidate for House Science and Technology Committee chair: Texas representative Hall is in line to head the House's main body on science. Currently the committee's ranking GOP member, he is an attorney by trade and was a Democrat until 2004. Hall is, at best, skeptical of science on global warming, despite an overwhelming consensus among scientists that the planet's climate is changing because of human activity. In particular, he objects to the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to regulate greenhouse gases. A court ruled in 2007 that the EPA could regulate carbon, and with attempts to move a bill through Congress dead in the water, it's likely to be the locus of CO2 action for the foreseeable future. Last week Hall told Politico: "This administration argues that cutting greenhouse emissions as a policy directive is justified by science. I think this hearing today will demonstrate and should demonstrate that reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the state of the science."

While the Republican Party has always been more skeptical of global warming than the Democrats, it's also a party that encompassed a wide range of views, from Barton to Christine Todd Whitman, George W. Bush's first EPA administrator. Given that history, the uniformity of views among these representatives suggests that the party's leaders on science and energy policy are increasingly moving away from that pluralistic tradition. That means that for the next two years serious scientists need not expect the GOP to see the light on many climate-change imperatives.