Monday, April 13, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Science and Technology Committee

Crossposted at Daily Kos and Congress Matters.

Welcome to the third installment of Considered Forthwith. This approximately weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies.

If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, Considered Forthwith Examines the House Committee on Science and Technology, chaired by Bart Gordon of Tennessee. The ranking member is Ralph Hall of Texas.

Here are the members of the committee:

Democrats: Bart Gordon, Tennessee (chair); Jerry F. Costello, Illinois; Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas; Lynn C. Woolsey, California; David Wu, Oregon; Brian Baird, Washington; Brad Miller, North Carolina; Daniel Lipinski, Illinois; Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona; Donna F. Edwards, Maryland; Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio; Ben R. Luján, New Mexico; Paul D. Tonko, New York; Parker Griffith, Alabama; Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey; Jim Matheson, Utah; Lincoln Davis, Tennessee; Ben Chandler, Kentucky; Russ Carnahan, Missouri; Baron P. Hill, Indiana; Harry E. Mitchell, Arizona; Charles A. Wilson, Ohio; Kathy Dahlkemper, Pennsylvania; Alan Grayson, Florida; Suzanne M. Kosmas, Florida; Gary Peters, Michigan; One vacancy

Note: No, not that Charlie Wilson.

Republicans: Ralph Hall, Texas (chair); F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin; Lamar Smith, Texas; Dana Rohrabacher, California; Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland; Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan; Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma; Judy Biggert, Illinois; W. Todd Akin, Missouri; Randy Neugebauer, Texas; Bob Inglis, South Carolina; Michael T. McCaul, Texas; Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida; Brian P. Bilbray, California; Adrian Smith, Nebraska; Paul Broun, Georgia; Pete Olson, Texas

The committee has an interesting history (PDF link). They are celebrating their 50th anniversary. After the Soviets launched Sputnik, the 85th Congress established the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration. (This, of course, was the time when it was acceptable for the Soviets to be better than Americans at anything but sucking.) This select committee established NASA and the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Over the years the committee gained jurisdiction over new technologies as they were developed and the name was changed several times. The current name of the committee was established in 2007.

The committee's core jurisdiction is the federal government's non-military research and development (R&D) activities. This includes encouraging R&D and overseeing those programs. As a direct result, the committee has partial or complete jurisdiction over several Executive Branch agencies. They are:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Science Foundation (NSF), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Fire Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The jurisdiction of this committee illustrates two characteristics that many committees share.

First, the Committee on Science and Technology Committee is primarily an "authorizing committee." Authorizating committees review bills to create new agencies and programs and set spending limits for them. However, it is up to the appropriations committees to actually fund the new and existing programs. For example, the committee might decide that is it absolutely vital that the government develop a more efficient way to build widgets. They might authorize the creation of the Office of Widget Development (OWD). If the House and Senate Appropriations Committees disagree, they will simply not fund OWD. (On the other hand, the appropriators can only fund existing programs. They could not create OWD.) Two recent real world examples of authorization laws handled by the committee are the America COMPETES Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The second characteristic is overlapping jurisdiction. This means that more than one committee officially has jurisdiction over a particular topic. For example, Chairman Gordon wants to focus on Health Information Technology this year. The Subcommittee on Health (under the Committee on Energy and Commerce) also has a claim to this program. The upside is that one committee could ignore a worthy program, but another with related jurisdiction can champion the program. The drawback is that federal programs can too easily get caught in the middle of inter-committee conflicts, resulting in a lack of focus in program goals.

Late last year, the Committee released its agenda (PDF link) for the 111th Congress. Some of the highlights include:

Implement the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). This program, designed to research innovative energy technology, would be based on the DARPA model of research. These are the people that brought us, among other things, the Internet (or a series of Tubes, if you happen to be a corrupt ex-Senator from Alaska with a penchant for Incredible Hulk ties).

Develop technical standards for Health Information Technology. HIT would digitize medical records and put them on a secure network. This will significantly increase the speed of treatment for patients who need or want to visit a health care facility he or she has never visited before. The problem is that doctors and hospitals need to request hard copies of medical records from other offices (sometimes a continent away). HIT would allow doctors to instantly pull up medical records from the secured database.

Prepare for Cap and Trade. If the plan passes Congress, there will be a need for technology to monitor compliance and monitoring.

Review the weather and ocean research work of NOAA.

Explore the expansion of international cooperation on space exploration and address the questions of commercial space fight.

Investigate the lack of attention to environmental justice at EPA.

Check out the full report for a complete rundown of the committee's plans for the next two years.

Finally, there are five subcommittees under the main committee:

Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation

David Wu is the chair and Adrian Smith is the ranking member. The subcommittee has a broad jurisdiction and oversight/investigative role. The jurisdiction includes:

all matters relating to competitiveness, technology, standards, and innovation, including:

1. standardization of weights and measures including technical standards, standardization, and conformity assessment;
2. measurement, including the metric system of measurement;
3. the Technology Administration of the Department of Commerce;
4. the National Institute of Standards and Technology;
5. the National Technical Information Service;
6. competitiveness, including small business competitiveness;
7. tax, antitrust, regulatory and other legal and governmental policies as they relate to technological development and commercialization;
8. technology transfer including civilian use of defense technologies;
9. patent and intellectual property policy;
10. international technology trade;
11. research, development, and demonstration activities of the Department of Transportation;
12. surface and water transportation research, development, and demonstration programs;
13. earthquake programs (except for NSF) and fire research programs including those related to wildfire proliferation research and prevention;
14. biotechnology policy;
15. research, development, demonstration, and standards related activities of the Department of Homeland Security;
16. Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer; and
17. voting technologies and standards.

Well, at least there's nothing in there about volcano monitoring, though that program is under USGS.

The most recent work of the subcommittee has revolved around making electronic waste more environmentally friendly. (In other words, making sure the your computer does not pollute the environment after you hit it with a hammer for crashing for the fifth time today).

The Subcommittee on Energy and Environment

Brian Baird is the chair of the subcommittee and Bob Inglis of South Carolina is the ranking member. The subcommittee has the following jurisdictions:

1. Department of Energy research, development, and demonstration programs;
2. Department of Energy laboratories;
3. Department of Energy science activities;
4. energy supply activities;
5. nuclear, solar and renewable energy, and other advanced energy technologies;
6. uranium supply and enrichment, and Department of Energy waste management and environment, safety, and health activities, as appropriate;
7. fossil energy research and development;
8. clean coal technology;
9. energy conservation research and development;
10. energy aspects of climate change;
11. pipeline research, development, and demonstration projects;
12. energy and environmental standards;
13. energy conservation, including building performance, alternate fuels for and improved efficiency of vehicles, distributed power systems, and industrial process improvements;
14. Environmental Protection Agency research and development programs;
15. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including all activities related to weather, weather services, climate, the atmosphere, marine fisheries, and oceanic research;
16. risk assessment activities; and
17. scientific issues related to environmental policy, including climate change.

The subcommittee recently held a hearing on greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe all of this work will convince the climate change deniers (euphemistically "skeptics"), including those in Congress.

Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight

The subcommittee is chaired by Brad Miller of North Carolina and Paul Broun of Georgia is the ranking member. This committee has the power to initiate investigations into Executive Branch agencies under the committee's jurisdiction. Most recently, the subcommittee announced that they will continue to investigate the infamous toxic trailers in which Hurricane Katrina refugees were housed.

Subcommittee on Research and Science Education

The Subcommittee is chaired by Daniel Lipinski from Illinois and the ranking member is Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan. When we grouse that the federal government should be doing more to encourage science and technology education, these are the people setting the priorities.

The subcommittee's jurisdiction includes:

1. the Office of Science and Technology Policy;
2. all scientific research, and scientific and engineering resources (including human resources), math, science and engineering education;
3. intergovernmental mechanisms for research, development, and demonstration and cross-cutting programs;
4. international scientific cooperation;
5. National Science Foundation, including earthquake programs;
6. university research policy, including infrastructure and overhead;
7. university research partnerships, including those with industry;
8. science scholarships;
9. computing, communications, and information technology;
10. research and development relating to health, biomedical, and nutritional programs;
11. to the extent appropriate, agricultural, geological, biological and life sciences research; and
12. materials research, development, and demonstration and policy.

Most recently, the committee held a hearing on informal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. This includes learning at museums, aquariums, zoos and on the Internet.

Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics

The subcommittee is chaired by Gabrielle Giffords from Arizona and Pete Olson from Texas is the ranking member. This subcommittee essentially serves the full committee's original function 50 years ago. They are primarily focused on space travel and exploration. Formally, the subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

1. national space policy, including access to space;
2. sub-orbital access and applications;
3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its contractor and government-operated labs;
4. space commercialization, including the commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce;
5. exploration and use of outer space;
6. international space cooperation;
7. the National Space Council;
8. space applications, space communications and related matters;
9. earth remote sensing policy;
10. civil aviation research, development, and demonstration;
11. research, development, and demonstration programs of the Federal Aviation Administration; and
12. space law.

The committee's most recent announcement was the assignment of committee members. They did recently hold a hearing on the use of biofuels in aviation.

For further discussion of space topics, Vladislaw's daily Americans in Space series is highly recommended.

That's about it for this week. Next week's diary will consider the House and Senate Ethics Committees.

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