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Democrats take the reins

November 8, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

All change at the head of Washington's science committees.

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The 7 November US elections swept the Democrats back into the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. What do the changes really mean, and what will the Democrats do next? Nature takes a look at the politicians old and new who, starting in January, will be running the key House committees on science issues.

Congressional committees are where much of the work of lawmaking goes on. After being introduced into the whole Congress, a bill is referred to the committee or committees that have jurisdiction on the topic in question. Lawmakers then hack through the details. Ultimately, bills need both House and Senate approval before becoming law.

The Congressmen and Congresswomen who run the committees can also call hearings on bills or topics of interest. Such hearings are often given public airings to topics such as conflicts of interest at the National Institutes of Health or the current state of climate-change research.

Each committee has between two and several dozen members, evenly divided between the parties. The chair is generally the senior member who belongs to the party in power.

And so Democrats are cracking their knuckles in preparation for the next Congress. Here's a run-down of some of the new power brokers in the House of Representatives:

Committee: Science New chairman: Bart Gordon, Tennessee This committee's purview is "all non-defence federal scientific research and development", although it clearly shares some turf with other committees. The outgoing chair, Sherwood Boehlert of New York, has been in the job since 2001 and is well liked by scientists.

Gordon, the new chairman, is interested in science topics such as the toxic mess left by illegal methamphetamine labs, which is a problem in his home district. He has also criticized the failings of NASA, supported the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for energy and spoken out against political meddling at science agencies.

Committee: Energy and Commerce New chairman: John Dingell, Michigan This committee covers many issues of scientific interest, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), energy policy and air pollution. The outgoing chair, Joe Barton of Texas, focused on NIH ethics issues as well as escalating the debate over the 'hockey stick' record of global warming (see ' Climate of distrust').

Dingell is an old hand at running this committee, chairing it between 1980 and 1994 and running a series of tough investigative hearings. He has said that he'd like to look into drug safety at the FDA. He is also pushing an energy plan that focuses on transportation. But because he is from the Detroit area, home to many US automobile manufacturers, he has been reluctant to pass strict fuel economy standards, and has sided with Republicans on climate change.

Committee: Resources New chairman: Nick Rahall, West Virginia This committee is where a lot of environmental battles shape up, as it regulates extracting anything from the Earth that is worth money, including fish, trees, minerals, oil and gas. The outgoing chair, Richard Pombo of California who also lost his district angered many greens with his efforts to change the Endangered Species Act. The new chair, Rahall, comes from a state famous for coal, and so is sympathetic to the mining industry. But the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group active in politics, generally approves of him and vastly prefers him to his predecessor.

Committee: Government Reform New chairman: Henry Waxman, California This committee is meant to keep an eye on the federal government. Under its predecessor, Tom Davis of Virginia, it was criticized for digging into steroid use in professional baseball while ignoring scandals such as Abu Ghraib. Waxman, the new chair, has been itching to investigate the Bush administration's record on science.

In 2003, he put out a 33-page report charging the administration with manipulating science. More recently he has alleged that the government has muzzled scientists on climate change, interfered at the FDA over the Plan B emergency contraceptive and deleted a government grant for evolutionary biology from a federal education program. Expect hearings aplenty on the politicization of science.

Committee: Agriculture New chairman: Collin Peterson, Minnesota This committee oversees funding for agricultural science, as well as the US Forest Service. Peterson comes from the US corn belt and is likely to be keen on ethanol as an alternative fuel for the future. His staff say he is just as keen on ethanol extracted from plant waste.

Committee: AppropriationsNew chairman: David Obey, Wisconsin This committee may be the most powerful in the House, since it apportions out the money every year. Obey, a senior representative, is keeping mum about his priorities, but education and the environment are among his pet issues.

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