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A Change In The House

Republican takeover of House of Representatives signals new science policies

by Glenn Hess, Cheryl Hogue, Jeff Johnson, David Pittman
November 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 47

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the November elections signals another change in leadership in Washington, D.C. New chairmen of powerful House committees will be chosen and major shifts in political philosophy will impact science and technology issues facing the 112th U.S. Congress. Prominent among these issues will be regulations and laws managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) myriad energy programs. An early analysis of these changes and possible consequences of shifting attitudes are discussed below.

Precisely who will be the new chairmen of the House committees that handle science and technology issues isn’t yet known; however, they will be more conservative financially than the current chairs. For instance, leadership of the Science & Technology Committee is up in the air. Current ranking member Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) has staked his claim, but two other members are reportedly interested: Reps. Dana T. Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who served as chairman of the science committee from 1997 to 2001.

Still, the likely chair will be Hall, who supports science and research but wants more restraint in funding. Hall has said the panel must conduct strong oversight of climate change, scientific integrity, energy research and development, cybersecurity, and science education.

No matter who takes the helm, science research funding may be a target of a Republican plan to roll back government spending. The 2010 GOP agenda, “A Pledge to America,” promises to return the federal budget to 2008 levels. An analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that federal research and development at nonmilitary agencies would drop 12.3%, or more than $8 billion, under the Republican plan.

At the House Homeland Security Committee, it looks like Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) will replace Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) as chairman. The major issue here will be the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on a temporary basis in 2007. These rules, which set minimum security standards for thousands of industrial facilities that make, use, or store hazardous chemicals, were due to expire at the end of 2009. Lawmakers have kept the program in operation by passing short-term extensions.

As chairman, King is expected to support legislation to permanently extend the existing CFATS program, without making any significant changes. He has been a strong opponent of giving DHS new authority to require changes in how companies manufacture their products.

The Democrat-controlled House passed comprehensive legislation (H.R. 2868) last year to permanently authorize CFATS, but Republicans—and the chemical industry—objected to provisions that would have given DHS the power to order facilities to use so-called inherently safer technology (IST), such as less toxic chemicals or safer processes.

“I would not expect any legislation passing in the next two years to include an IST mandate,” says William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, an industry trade group. “SOCMA will be pushing for a permanent reauthorization of CFATS next year,” he adds.

In another key change, Rep. Charles W. Dent (R-Pa.) is expected to replace Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) as chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security & Infrastructure Protectionthe starting point for chemical plant security legislation.

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Like King, Dent wants to keep the existing CFATS program intact without adding an IST provision. “I have long advocated for improved security at our nation’s chemical facilities and believe CFATS is the correct approach to achieving this goal,” Dent says.

Allmond says it’s unclear how much of a priority chemical facility security will be for the new Congress. “It’s doubtful that CFATS will be something we see in the first two months; perhaps by late spring or early summer we may see legislation,” Allmond says. But it’s very likely that the 112th Congress will ultimately pass a long-term authorization of CFATS without an IST mandate, he says.S

ome political cooperation may be found next year in a couple of areas. One is on an overhaul of U.S. patent law. Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), who likely will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has made patent reform a top priority for the past several years, working closely on the issue with Democrats such as Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the current committee chairman.

And the White House and congressional Republicans could also find common ground next year in trade. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the presumptive chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, is a longtime champion of free trade. He is expected to try to advance bilateral trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia that have been stalled in Congress since 2007.

Congressional debate over environmental issues, however, is a different matter. Actions on regulating chemicals and greenhouse gas emissions are going to go in a very different direction than they would have gone under the Democrats.

Despite several hearings this year and in 2009 on overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the federal law controlling the manufacture of commerce chemicals, observers see little chance of this issue gaining much traction in 2011, even though the chemical industry wants the law modernized. “I really don’t see TSCA reform being a high priority next year,” SOCMA’s Allmond says.

SOCMA will continue talking with legislators about the federal chemical control law and trying to persuade some Republican members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee to introduce legislation to modernize TSCA, Allmond says.

Likewise, the American Chemistry Council will be reaching out to new members of Congress about rewriting TSCA, says Scott Jensen, a spokesman for this industry association. “By and large, people aren’t familiar with this,” he says. Reform of the 34-year-old law “is still our priority issue,” Jensen adds.

How much, if any, attention TSCA reform receives in the next Congress depends on who ends up leading the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee.

The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Joseph L. Barton (R-Texas) has run into the GOP’s six-term limit for chairing or holding the ranking minority member spot on a committee. Nonetheless, Barton wants to head the committee in the 112th Congress. He is asking Republican leaders to clarify that the term limit only applies for time spent as a committee chairman—not as top minority member. Barton may be reluctant to take up rewriting the chemical control law; he said in August that TSCA is “working well” in its current form (C&EN, Aug. 16, page 35).

But Barton faces a fight for the chairmanship with the GOP legislator next in line for the job, Rep. Frederick S. Upton of Michigan, who is the ranking member of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Energy & Environment. Also seeking the post are Reps. Clifford B. Stearns (R-Fla.), now ranking member of the Communications, Technology & the Internet Subcommittee, and John M. Shimkus of Illinois, currently the top Republican on the Health Subcommittee.

All four Republicans oppose federal action to curb greenhouse gases, an issue that falls under the Energy & Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction. Barton and Shimkus are dismissive skeptics of climate-change science.

Barton, a friend of oil and gas industries, is a strong critic of tough air pollution regulations. If he gets the committee chair, Barton says he will take aim at EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. He says Jackson “proudly refuses to analyze her agency’s actions to determine either the potential job losses they will cause or the pressure they will put on U.S. companies to relocate overseas.”

Like Barton, Upton is no fan of tighter pollution regulation and, if he gets the committee gavel, would likely hold Jackson’s feet to the fire over EPA’s recent Clean Air Act rules.

The changes in House leadership are likely to bring a sharp refocusing of federal programs for energy, especially in funding for energy R&D and for programs and incentives that drive renewable energy manufacturing. These have been major areas of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans for years.

The new House leadership—coupled with the final allocation of stimulus money through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided more than $30 billion for energy programs and projects—could threaten several DOE programs, such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and the Energy Frontier Research Centers. All enjoyed support through stimulus money but now must turn to congressional appropriations in the DOE budget.

However, many new Congress members were voted in with the promise of trimming back the federal budget, and come next year, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is likely to have a brisk time defending his budget on Capitol Hill.

In the election, jobs ran smack into climate-change legislation and jobs won. Carbon dioxide cap-and-trade legislation is dead, and EPA’s attempt to regulate carbon through the Clean Air Act authority faces a rough fight. It is unlikely that efforts to price carbon emissions will get far in this new Congress.

President Barack Obama acknowledged this during a postelection press briefing, saying he would limit his energy agenda and focus on the spots where Congress and he could agree, pointing to fuel efficiency, nuclear energy, electric vehicles, and natural gas development. He stuck by the need to address climate change but without hurting the economy. Obama urged development of U.S. clean energy sources “that, in fact, may give us opportunities to create entire new industries and create jobs that put us in a competitive posture around the world.”

However, the push for green jobs may find tough sledding in the new Congress. Along with a price on carbon, conservatives have voiced opposition to most renewable energy drivers, such as tax support or national requirements that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable energy sources, the so-called renewable portfolio standards.

Traditional associations of large manufacturing companies, such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, have warned that subsidies for renewable energy are job killers because they raise the cost of electricity. They predict the new Congress will examine and eliminate this support.

However, the new renewable energy marketplace is growing. Looking at wind energy, the manufacturers of wind turbine components, everything from gearboxes to blades, directly employ 19,000 workers at 400 U.S. industrial facilities, says Elizabeth Salerno, director of industry data and analysis at the American Wind Energy Association.

The primary driver for this progress has been the renewable electricity requirements that currently exist in 30 states, she says. Overall, employment in the wind energy sector has gone from about nothing in 2004 to 85,000 total jobs today, she says, when construction, siting, transportation, and other related jobs are factored in.

Salerno also emphasized the need for government support to ensure global competitiveness. “The industry doesn’t exist in isolation. Many countries—China, India, Brazil, and those in the European Union—have multiple policies to encourage renewable investments in their countries, and we have nothing in comparison,” she says.

Peter Molinaro, Dow Chemical vice president for federal and state government affairs, agrees with the need for federal support if U.S. companies are to compete successfully with nations that strongly back domestic industries.

But renewable energy support for Dow is complicated. Molinaro described the problematic “three-headed hydra” that Dow faces.

“We operate a very large energy-intensive manufacturing operation, so cost of electricity is important to us; we buy a lot of natural gas, and its cost and availability is also important to us; and we have this portfolio of energy solutions that go from building insulation to solar shingles and to, hopefully, things like more durable and lighter wind turbine blades and carbon capture technologies. And we want to make sure these new technologies can be deployed.”

But it is a problem for Dow if support for new technologies raises the company’s overall electric rates. On the other hand, if the new energy technologies result in new sales and lower the price of natural gas by reducing the demand for natural gas at a power plant, that is a plus for Dow.


The importance of this debate grows for Dow as it increasingly moves into the renewable energy marketplace. Company figures predict Dow’s solar shingles will have a potential market of $1 billion a year by 2015.

Passage of any contentious legislation next year, whether on renewable energy or environmental regulations, will be difficult, with the House under the control of Republicans and the Senate under the control of Democrats. The best hope would be for congressional leaders to compromise on important issues in order to get bills passed. But given the strident positions many new members are bringing to Congress, that seems unlikely.


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