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Climate Denier Congressman Lamar Smith Contends with New Foe: Declining Voter Support

House science committee chairman has made it his mission to combat environmental regulation

For those keeping score, the “Making [Everything] Great Again” naming committee is on a roll, and, from his perch as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (HCSST), Congressman Lamar Smith is well positioned to keep things rolling. Since 1987, the inveterate Republican politician has held the seat representing Texas’s 21st District in the House of Representatives, a district that includes concentrated liberal pockets near Austin and San Antonio (Smith’s hometown), and part of the conservative expanse of Texas Hill Country. He’s obviously well received by his constituents, but the details of his tenure are even more impressive: from 1988 to 2002, the congressman never won reelection with less than 72 percent of the vote.

photo of lamar smithPhoto by NASA HQ PHOTO, Flickr Congressman Lamar Smith, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry, is facing declining voter support in Texas's 21st District.

The secret to his winning ways? After receiving the Award for Conservative Excellence, Smith stated, “My votes represent my constituents. I continue to stand for liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values, and a strong national defense.” Simple as that — keep your constituents happy, keep your job. Yet, as important as ideology is to attracting voters, campaign contributions are what keep the lights on, and in Texas, donors in the energy business hold sway over anyone seeking public office. True to its big motto, Texas is the nation’s leading energy producer and consumer, responsible for more than one-third of total US oil production and home to one-quarter of proven natural gas reserves. With more operable oil refineries than any other state, the industry generates enormous levels of revenue — last year, it pumped $9.4 billion into state and local government budgets. For politicians, these industrial goliaths present a choice: either advocate for their interests or scrutinize their means of production. Not that it’s that cut and dry, but what is clear is that Rep. Smith forged his alliance long ago, having received over the course of his career more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry.

As such, Smith’s enduring interest in dismantling regulations geared toward combating climate change can be interpreted as “bought.” There’s nothing conservative about his skepticism of climate science — he is an outspoken denier of the causes and dire expected outcomes of anthropogenic climate change, and since being appointed the HCSST chairman, he has made it his mission to investigate federal agencies for what he believes to be rampant environmentalism and unnecessary, harmful regulation. His dismissive attitude doesn’t stop at manmade global warming — he has openly doubted an EPA review documenting the dangers of glyphosphate, the peer review process itself at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and air pollution regulations informed by public health studies, to name just a few.

With an anti-regulation administration as his tailwind, Chairman Smith and Vice Chairman Frank Lucas recently recycled two pieces of legislation, wrapped them in shiny packaging, and reintroduced both to the House of Representatives as bills advocating for transparency and accountability in science-based policy, while guarding against the scrum of compromised bureaucracy. Both were passed by the House in late March, and await Senate consideration. 

The first bill, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act, is part of Smith’s continuing strategy to make the EPA, and science itself, great again. To purportedly promote governmental transparency and maintain the integrity of the scientific review process, the HONEST Act’s payload is prohibiting the agency from “writing any regulation that uses science that is not publicly available.” As the HCSST chairman, Smith already has the outright power to demand supporting documentation of published studies from federal agencies within his purview, a rule amended and expanded this past January. If an agency doesn’t comply, he can issue a subpoena. Since its inception more than 60 years ago, the subcommittee has invoked that power in total fewer times than Smith has in his first three years leading the committee.

Moreover, it’s not as if the EPA, or any federal agency, has closed its door to the public. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) already provides any person the right to access federal agency records, including, for example, the data cited in a study used by the EPA for the purposes of advocating specific policy. However, there are nine exemptions to the FOIA, and this is where the HONEST Act can harm the EPA. For example, the EPA can currently use and cite studies involving personal medical records to develop public health advisories. If signed into law, the HONEST Act wouldn’t necessarily inhibit the EPA from sourcing confidential information — as long as everything confidential is redacted prior to public availability. Insurmountable? No, but considering the estimated cost of enforcing its stipulations and factoring in President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, the HONEST Act would almost guarantee less regulation and evidence-based policy from the EPA, irrespective of the public need for it.

The second bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, seeks to upend the types of professionals that comprise the 48-person panel of experts in place to provide independent scientific counsel to the agency. Currently, the majority of the board is academic scientists; if passed, the act will cater to industry representatives from private companies who “may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities.” In brief, the SAB Reform Act would bar any scientist holding an EPA grant from serving due to the potential conflict of interest, as well as prohibit a board member from being awarded one for three years following their service, yet it would allow a scientist from say, Exxon, because that affiliation shouldn’t exclude their membership provided they disclose any conflicts.

Keep in mind that the SAB doesn’t award grants or establish budgets, and if a situation arose, for example, where a chemical studied by an SAB scientist was being investigated by the SAB, that member would already have to recuse themself. Smith maintains that there’s nothing to see here, claiming that reform is necessary to strengthen the public’s trust in the EPA through increased transparency, opportunity for public participation in the review process, and accountability of a well-balanced SAB.

Lisa Rosenbaum, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard, recently wrote a sobering article on the role effective scientific communication plays in mitigating rising public distrust regarding topics like nutrition science and climate change. But, as she concludes, the main issue is that “what makes science right is the enduring capacity to admit we are wrong. Such is the slow, imperfect march of science.” In the argument of economy versus environment, otherwise known as the climate change debate, the challenge environmentalists face in converting the opposition is partly due to the perpetual evolving of “scientific facts.” Politicians are castigated when they flip-flop on voter issues, while scientists are given free rein to change their minds on topics — as they should, provided the evidence guides such redirection. How many articles on the health or harm of caffeine, for instance, does one need to read before beginning to question the legitimacy of scientific studies?

On one hand, elected representatives should question agency practices that contribute to governmental inefficiency. And, as mentioned, scientists are not perfect, science is prone to human error, and scientists sometimes even capitalize on fraudulent claims. However, these two pieces of legislation sound ginned up from the same “back-handed big government disguised in do-gooder rhetoric” questioning that Republicans have used to seize upon Americans’ fears before. The outcomes of the scientific method provide the odds that we use to hedge our country’s bets, which will always involve some uncertainty. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert claims, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “science is the worst way to find the truth — except for every other option.”

Meanwhile, the 2018 midterm elections are quickly approaching, and there are signs that Smith’s seat may be in jeopardy. Last year, for the first time in his career, Smith received less than 60 percent of the general vote, and many voters in his district are growing tired of his inaccessibility. And in a break from previous election cycles, in 2016 the editorial board at the San Antonio Express News refused to support Smith’s reelection bid. The board’s public announcement ended with a statement to their readers that they “have no doubt that Smith will be reelected, but in good conscience . . . cannot make a recommendation in this race.”

Since then, at least eight Democratic hopefuls have announced their intention to challenge the incumbent, including Joseph Kopser, a former US Army Ranger and Austin-based tech executive who believes Smith is out of touch with science and his constituents, and Derrick Crowe, a former Democratic congressional staffer who’s prioritizing climate change policy as a key pillar of his platform. Albeit politically perilous for some candidates, choosing a side is a smart move because this debate is only getting louder. Public advocacy organizations like TX21 Indivisible and 314 Action represent a grassroots movement opposing Smith and his brand of ideological fervor that flies in the face of scientific evidence their members support. Smith’s climate beliefs, which float in that gray zone of “sound” science, aren’t likely to change, but the emboldened politician, who has built his brand on publicly mocking and harassing climate scientists, finds himself in perhaps the most precarious position of his career.

Almost a decade after Republican presidential candidate John McCain ran on a platform aligned with the consensus of climate scientists regarding emissions-reductions action, the evidence linking human activity to a warming planet has only grown stronger. A study investigating the economic impact of climate change in America recently published in Science magazine revealed some disturbing potential outcomes for large swaths of Texas, including a 20 percent increase in energy costs by 2080. For politicians, climate change is becoming less a peripheral topic that can be casually dismissed and more like a voter issue with real-world, near-term implications. In terms of catastrophic outcomes, climate scientists keep telling us that the real question is not if they will occur, but when. For Lamar Smith, it might finally be time to consider the same.

Evan Lund
Evan Lund is a former scientist based in Chicago. He started a research scientist interview series called B-sides and Research that you can visit here.

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