It's hard to say exactly when the House Science Committee became a national joke, but I'd argue the laughter began three years ago this month. Then-Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) delivered
some jaw-dropping public remarks in which he described pillars of modern science -- including evolutionary biology and the big bang -- as quite literally “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”
When the political world learned that Republicans had put Broun on the House Science Committee, of all things, the panel started drawing additional scrutiny. It wasn't long before a portrait emerged
of a committee led by right-wing lawmakers with a brazen hostility towards empiricism, evidence, and the scientific canon.
But if this were simply a matter of a congressional panel filled with unqualified GOP members, the House Science Committee could remain a harmless national punch-line. But the Washington Post reported
late last week on a development that's far more alarming.
The head of a congressional committee on science has issued subpoenas to the Obama administration over a recent scientific study refuting claims that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the last decade. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and a prominent congressional skeptic on climate change, issued the subpoenas two weeks ago demanding e-mails and records from U.S. scientists who participated in the study, which undercut a popular argument used by critics who reject the scientific consensus that man-made pollution is behind the planet’s recent warming.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), insisted that Smith is “furthering a fishing expedition,” which brings the "legitimacy of this committee" into question.
That's true, though she's being charitable with her restraint.
All of this stems from a recent peer-reviewed piece in the journal Science, written by NOAA’s Thomas Karl, who heads its National Centers for Environmental Information. The point of the paper was pretty straightforward: there's a popular idea on the right that warming trends have "paused" in recent years, and Karl refuted those claims with evidence.
Climate deniers, including those on the House Science Committee, were fond of the "pause" idea and were outraged that a public-sector scientist was involved in debunking it. So, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith went after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demanding an explanation of how Karl's journal piece came together.
[Ranking member Bernice Johnson explained] that Smith made three written requests for information about Karl's study, all of which NOAA responded to in writing and in personal briefings. "Moreover," she writes, "NOAA attempted to explain certain aspects of the methodology about which the Majority was apparently confused." (Imagine how that meeting went.) Among Smith's repeated demands: access to the data and methods behind NOAA's work on climate. Except, as NOAA and Democratic members of the committee kept trying to explain, those data and methods are posted on the internet. Anyone can access them. Yet Republicans kept demanding them. Unsatisfied with the total cooperation and untrammeled access his committee received, Smith issued a subpoena.... Smith has not alleged any corruption, wrongdoing, or even bad science. He hasn't alleged anything. Nor has he offered any justification for why he needs access to NOAA internal communications.
But Smith was awarded broad subpoena powers
by House Republicans this year, and his authority is so sweeping that he doesn't even have to justify his own abuses. He can simply issue subpoenas to scientists, on a whim, in the hopes he might find something -- anything -- that might be used to advance his larger agenda.
I'm all for congressional oversight, but by any fair measure, the House Science Committee's antics are attempts at harassment, not accountability.