Public Policy

Rep. Lamar Smith Assumes Key S&T Post in Congress

By Chris J. Brantley

On 28 Nov., the House Republican Steering Committee announced that Texas Representative Lamar Smith would assume the chairmanship of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology when the 113th Congress convened in January.

Rep. Smith replaces current chair, Rep. Ralph Hall (also from Texas), who will rotate to a new committee assignment under the Republican leadership rules, which limit leadership tenure on a House committee to six years.

Hall congratulated Smith on the posting, noting that “I have worked with Congressman Smith for many years on the Committee, and he has been a consistent and unwavering advocate for American space leadership and promoting technological advancements through research.”

IEEE-USA also expressed support for the appointment; Keith Grzelak, IEEE-USA’s vice-president for government relations, told Nature magazine that Smith “understands the role that science, technology and engineering can play in boosting the economy.”

Ranked third in seniority among Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Smith jumps ahead of Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who had previously served as committee chair; Smith was serving as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and had previously served on the Committee on Homeland Security.

A fifth generation Texan and San Antonio native, Rep. Smith graduated from Yale University and Southern Methodist University School of Law. Prior to running for Congress, he helped manage a family ranch, served as an attorney with the San Antonio firm of Maebius and Duncan, and held public office on the Bexar County Commission and the Texas House of Representatives.


First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, Smith represents Texas’s 21st Congressional District, which encompasses sections of San Antonio and Austin, and extends westward into the Texas Hill country. Key District constituencies include the University of Texas at Austin, and the Austin-based high-tech and defense community, composed of such companies as Intel, National Instruments, HP, AMD, Cisco, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and others.

Smith’s Legislative Record

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Smith has been a proactive legislator on issues related to the Internet, digital information, patents and immigration. Among recent bills of note:

  • Leahy-Smith America Invents Act: In 2011, Smith co-sponsored this fundamental overhaul of the U.S. patent system, shifting the United States from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” system. The bill was signed into law on 16 Sept. 2011, and takes effect in March 2013. IEEE-USA has been proactive in providing comments to the U.S. Patent Office on its proposed rules for implementation of AIA.
  • Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)On 26 Oct. 2011, Smith introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) (aka SOPA). The bill sought to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods, but ran into significant opposition from internet freedom advocacy groups and web companies.
  • Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers (PCIP) Act: On 25 May 25, 2011, Smith introduced the PCIP Act (HR 1981), which sought to combat child pornography on the Internet by imposing new sentencing rules, and mandating that ISPs keep logs of specific customer data. Internet privacy groups and House Democrats challenged the bill as overreaching.
  • STEM Jobs Act: IEEE-USA worked closely with Rep. Smith in crafting the STEM Jobs Act (H.R. 6429), legislation that would redirect federal diversity (lottery) visas to provide green cards for foreign STEM graduate students graduating from U.S. educational institutions. The bill passed the House on 30 Nov., by a largely party line vote, but is expected to die in the Senate, as the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress are committed to pursuing comprehensive immigration legislation in 2013.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee

The jurisdiction of the Science Committee encompasses large components of the federal civilian R&D program, including energy, the non-military federal laboratories, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, the National Weather Service, civil aviation R&D, and environmental R&D. As an authorizing committee, it is responsible for providing federal civilian agencies with basic operating authority for R&D and technology transfer programs, as well as oversight of those operations.

For many Members of Congress, the Science Committee is considered a second-tier assignment because it has relatively little power. It authorizes agency R&D programs, but it does not fund them, which is the preserve of the Appropriations Committee.  Its jurisdiction excludes the largest federal civilian R&D program”the National Institutes of Health.  And as technology-related issues become more pervasive, other committees”such as the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, and even Rep. Smith’s Judiciary Committee”have exerted their jurisdictions in ways that overlap or limit the Science Committee’s.

Historically, the Science, Space and Technology Committee has been a bipartisan preserve for Members of Congress with high-tech constituencies who share a common interest in promoting U.S. technological innovation and competitiveness. Over the past two presidential administrations, however, S&T issues are becoming increasing polarized around budget priorities and disagreements between the parties over such issues as climate change, and the appropriate roles of government in promoting innovation. That has translated into more partisan friction between Republican and Democratic members of the committee, as for example in the 112th Congress–where Chairman Hall focused committee hearings on issues related to climate change, and allegations of “bad science” by the Environmental Protection Agency–where the Republican House leadership was critical of the Obama Administration’s policies.

In comments to Nature magazine, Ranking Committee Democrat and fellow Texan, Eddie Bernice Johnson expressed hopes that Smith’s appointment would result in a more moderate approach, and a shift to less partisan issues.


Outlook for the 113th Congress

As chair, Rep. Smith will become the gatekeeper overseeing several significant S&T-related bills expected to reach the House floor during the 113th Congress.

One of the key bills for 2013 will be the reauthorization of NASA and the national space program. Among the issues to be resolved include a restatement of NASA’s fundamental mission and priorities; the appropriate balance between human space exploration and NASA’s other science and technology missions; development of a national space launch capacity to replace the space shuttle, versus continued reliance on Russia; and a fledgling commercial launch industry. With federal budget constraints paramount, questions about what to do with NASA’s extensive Apollo era infrastructure are also likely to emerge, which takes on important political overtones for Members of Congress with NASA facilities and jobs in their districts.

The America COMPETES Act and its current authorizations for most federal civilian R&D programs are also scheduled to expire in 2013, which makes reauthorization another legislative priority for the Science Committee in the 113th Congress. First passed in 2007, with strong support by IEEE-USA and the broader S&T community, the America COMPETES Act seeks to enhance U.S. competitiveness in the physical sciences through targeted funding increases for physical sciences programs of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other federal agencies. The America COMPETES Act reauthorization will trigger several key issues.

Much of the committee’s work will also be defined and constrained by whatever budget deal is reached by Congress and the White House to avoid budget sequestration. If budget sequestration takes effect, the Committee will be looking at how to allocate spending cuts to federal R&D programs on the order of 8% of more. Even with a favorable budget deal, the committee will play a significant role in advising congressional appropriators on which federal R&D programs within their jurisdiction to support, and which can be cut, and to what extent, as part of the on-going effort to constrain federal spending.

For More Information:

Rep. Lamar Smith

House Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Chris J. Brantley is IEEE-USA’s managing director in Washington, D.C.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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