By Evan Lund
Nestled south of Edwards Plateau in central Texas is Lamar S. Smith's congressional district, formally known as Texas's 21st congressional district (TX-21). The district includes concentrated liberal pockets near Austin and San Antonio before expanding west into a big chunk of Texas Hill Country. Since 1987, Smith has held the District 21 seat in the House of Representatives for the Republican party. For most of his tenure, he hasn't had to sweat the prospect of losing his seat; from 1988 to 2002, the Congressman never won re-election with less than 72 percent of the vote.
Congressman Smith is not just some middle-of-the-road Republican. He recently received the Award for Conservative Excellence from the American Conservative Union Foundation with a 92 percent score on his votes during the year - the average House Republican scores an 82 percent. Referencing his score, Smith said, "My votes represent my constituents. I continue to stand for liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values, and a strong national defense." Based on his track record, the majority of constituents in TX-21 do support his votes, as do his campaign donors.
Texas has more operable oil refineries than any other state. In 2014, those refineries produced 1.2 billion barrels of oil - more than one-third of the total U.S. output. Considering the enormous wealth the industry generates for Texas, big oil interests have considerable influence over anyone seeking political office in the Lone Star State and beyond. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Ted Cruz received about $25 million dollars - more than half of his SuperPac's funds - from fossil fuel donors. And the funds don't flow to only one end of the political spectrum. U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, raked in over $165,000 from the oil and gas industry during his 2015-2016 campaign cycle. Congressman Smith is no exception. Since 1998, he's received over $700,000 from oil and gas companies, which tops Smith's list as the industry responsible for the most money contributed to his career campaign cycles.
Like Cruz, Smith is an ardent denier of the imminent dangers of climate change. In a recent Wall Street Journal op/ed, he expressed his frustration with the Obama administration's overblown, alarmist rhetoric, claiming their intent was advancing a political agenda, not pre-cautionary, evidence-based policies. He ends the article on a powerful note: "When assessing climate change, we should focus on good science, not politically correct science."
Which begs the question, what is good science? And who gets to decide it? The answer, to a certain extent, is Lamar Smith, because in 2013, Republican house leaders appointed Congressman Smith as the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (HCSST).
While its jurisdiction has expanded, now responsible for federal agency budgets totaling $39 billion, the focus of the committee has endured: establish priorities and provide key oversight of non-defense federal scientific research. Per the Committee's website, Smith's responsibilities are promoting "legislation that encourages scientific discoveries, space exploration, and new technologies."
This makes Smith's position on key scientific issues all the more troubling. He once stated that his only goal as Chairman is "to protect the American people from unnecessary and burdensome regulations and to force the Obama administration to tell the truth." His goal doesn't necessarily preclude the notion that promoting legislation enabling scientific discovery can occur alongside eliminating regulations and forcing people to tell the truth, but the common ground between the two isn't obvious. What is obvious is his devotion to his cause. As Chairman, Smith has the power to review supporting documentation of published studies from the federal agencies within his purview. If an agency doesn't comply, he can issue a subpoena, which occurred more times in his first three years leading the committee than it had in its 54-year history. Part of the surge in scrupulous study review can be attributed to Smith's dismissive attitude toward most climate scientists and his strategy to limit federal funding for projects that are not "in the national interest." Considering the futility of predicting conceptual and technological breakthroughs in any scientific field, it's arguable that a non-scientist in charge of prioritizing research projects based on his own qualifications of good, sound science isn't positioning the country for success.
And it's not just the scientific community that has grown increasingly more critical of Smith's leadership. For the first time ever, Smith's 2016 re-election resulted in less than 60 percent of the general vote. He still won by more than 70,000 votes over the Democratic candidate, Thomas Wakely, but a host of Democratic challengers are now considering a run at Smith's seat in 2018. Joseph Kopser, a former U.S. Army Ranger and Austin-based tech executive, exemplifies the type of high-quality candidate seeking to represent constituents in the 21st district. Kopser served in the Army for 20 years before co-founding a public transportation routing efficiency app that he later sold to Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes Benz. He's broadly involved in organizations affecting Texas policy efforts, and wants to disrupt the innovation void left by Congressman Smith's agenda.
Another Democratic hopeful is Derrick Crowe, who boasts some Capitol Hill experience among his credentials. Crowe worked as a congressional staffer for senior Democrats for six years, and since returning to Austin, has directed his energy toward developing a platform based on climate action. He is not disillusioned by the prospect of overcoming Smith's donor's deep pockets, and expects his campaign message to "motivate voters in a way that corporate money can't."
It's imperative that anyone challenging the incumbent is not disillusioned by the Congressman's financing or his 16 straight victories. Or by the way the Texas 21st district is drawn, which makes it extremely difficult for a Democrat to compete. But make no mistake - the climate science debate is not going away. Smith has built his brand on publicly mocking and harassing climate scientists, and even his colleagues fear his political objections have turned personal. Unseating him will require convincing those who share his beliefs that cherry-picking the available data to advance a preferred narrative isn't in the country's best interests nor is it good, sound science - it's politics.
Evan Lund is a former scientific researcher based in Chicago. He started a research scientist interview series called B-sides and Research that you can visit here.
Image credit: Harrison Moore via Unsplash
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