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House Science Committee to See Major Rules Changes

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology met on January 27 for a business meeting, where members discussed committee organization and general rules.

The meeting was led by Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who proposed several changes to the rules that dictate day-to-day operations of the Committee and proper protocol for interactions between Committee Members. The rules were approved by a party-line 17:10 vote.

While these meetings are typically routine, the Democratic Minority Members expressed serious concern with the new rules, which they believe violate the Minority’s rights to participate in committee proceedings.

Of particular concern is a rule that reduces notice periods for markups, which give members a chance to vote on amendments and comment on the bill as a whole. In the 113th Congress Committee rules, markups had to be announced 72 hours in advance, excluding weekends and federal holidays, and text of the legislation publicly available 48 hours prior. The new rules do not exclude weekends or holidays; the concern is that a markup may be announced on a Saturday and held on Tuesday, which limits the time to file amendments or to review the bill before the markup.

The most contentious discussion revolved around a rule that gives the Committee Chair unilateral authority to issue a subpoena (without consulting the Ranking Member, or the rest of the Committee).  Democrats offered several amendments to add a few additional checks and balances, but all were voted down. During the debate, Chairman Smith mentioned the Environmental Protection Agency explicitly several times. He also assured the Minority that they “would not be disappointed” in his leadership or the ways in which he exercises this new authority.

Under previous rules, subpoenas could only be issued with the support of the majority of the committee.  In a recent editorial, Andrew A. Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that “there is a big difference between being asked to testify…and getting a subpoena…it suggests wrongdoing or reluctance to participate…” He goes on to point out that this puts any scientist that is affiliated with the government at risk of being required to share data that that may include unpublished information or even private health records.

You can read Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-TX) reaction to the new rules here