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The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee

"Are you now or have you ever been a climate scientist?"
"Are you now or have you ever been a climate scientist?"
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last Thursday, the nation watched with a mix of amusement and horror as the House Benghazi committee spent 11 hours grilling Hillary Clinton on a bizarre farrago of issues, many of which bore only tangential connection to the Benghazi attack.

Over the past few weeks, the political narrative seems to have shifted from "Clinton in trouble" to "congressional witch hunt seeks to take down Clinton." Between McCarthy's accidental truth telling, an ex-staffer confirming the worst reports about the committee, and another House Republican conceding the obvious, it has become clear that the Benghazi committee is a thoroughly partisan political endeavor. Opinion has turned, but Republicans are trapped.

The thing is: The Benghazi committee is not even the worst committee in the House. I'd argue that the House science committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-TX), deserves that superlative for its open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation's leading scientists and scientific institutions.

The science committee's modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee's — sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage — but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.

In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered. (There were half a dozen probes into Benghazi before this one.) In both cases, the chair has drifted from inquiry to inquisition. But with Benghazi, the only threat is to the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who has the resources to defend herself. With the science committee, it is working scientists being intimidated, who often do not have the resources to defend themselves, and the threat is to the integrity of the scientific process in the US. It won't take much for scientists to get the message that research into politically contested topics is more hassle than it's worth.

This year, Smith was one of the committee chairs granted sweeping new subpoena powers by his fellow House Republicans, what one staffer called "exporting the Issa model." No longer is the chair required to consult with the ranking member before launching investigations or issuing subpoenas. A spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said, "This change will inevitably [lead] to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship."

That turned out to be pretty prescient, at least in the case of the science committee. No chair has taken to his new role with as much enthusiasm as Smith. Here are just three of his recent exploits.

lamar smith and darrell issa
Smith asks for tips from Issa at a 2009 hearing on (no kidding) ACORN.
(Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Hassling a scientist for unwelcome results

In June, a scientist named Thomas Karl, along with colleagues, published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science called "Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus." It cast doubt on the global warming "pause" that has become the latest cause célèbre for climate change, er, doubters.

That did not sit well with Smith, who is a doubter himself, like many of the Republicans on his committee and more than half of all House Republicans. And it was the subject of much heated attack in the denial-o-sphere.

So Smith has gone after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where Karl works as the director of the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). For a play-by-play, I recommend this scorching letter to Smith from committee ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

In it, she notes 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:

On October 13, the committee subpoenaed nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including "all documents and communications" related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate.

"All documents and communications" would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a treasure trove of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.

NOAA was given two weeks to comply.

(Coincidentally, the very following day, longtime climate skeptic blogger Bob Tisdale published a long post calling into question the very adjustments to temperature data that were mentioned in Smith's subpoena.)

To be clear, 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. The new rules mean that he no longer has to explain or justify himself to anyone. He's just hoping to find something he can use.

Here's the most pointed part of Johnson's letter:

The baseless conflict you have created by issuing the October 13 subpoena is representative of a disturbing pattern in your use of Congressional power since your Chairmanship began. In the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54 year history of the Committee. That prior Committee history is filled with extensive legitimate oversight concerning consequential events — oftentimes quite literally matters of life and death. Yet none of the prior eleven Chairs of our Committee exercised their authority with the degree of partisan brashness as is now the case in our Committee.

rep. bernice johnson
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) wants to know if you're being serious right now.
(Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)

Hassling a scientist for unwelcome politics

Recently, political pressure on Exxon and the oil industry has been growing.

In May, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) gave a speech and penned an op-ed on the possibility of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) case against the energy industry, arguing that the "parallels between what the tobacco industry did and what the fossil fuel industry is doing now are striking."

On September 1, a group of about 20 climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and OSTP Director John Holdren recommending that they look into a RICO case. Holdren replied, deferring any legal decisions to the Department of Justice but writing that "the Administration shares the concern expressed in the letter about the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change."

On September 21, InsideClimate News published the first in what would become a blockbuster series of stories that made clear just how much Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and how soon, well before it spent millions of dollars deliberately obscuring the issue. In early October, the LA Times followed up with its own investigation.

On October 15, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) wrote Lynch asking the Department of Justice to investigate whether the company violated the law. On October 20, Bernie Sanders joined the call for a federal investigation.

None of this sat well with Smith, either. So he's going after one of the scientists who signed the letter to Obama.

Apparently the letter was (inadvertently, the organization says) posted on the website of George Mason University's Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES), a nonprofit research institution led by one of the scientists who signed the letter, Jagadish Shukla.

Science journalist Warren Cornwall tells what happened next:

The letter eventually came to the attention of outsiders, including science policy specialist Roger Pielke, Jr., of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Pielke, an active voice in debates over climate science and policy, called attention to the letter on Twitter, and also raised questions about IGES’s finances. Soon, journalists, including several associated with conservative news outlets, were writing about the letter and IGES. The Daily Caller, for example, noted that "climate scientists asking Obama to prosecute skeptics got millions from U.S. taxpayers," in a 21 September story.

Smith got wind of this and sent Shukla a letter (citing the Daily Caller story) noting that "IGES appears to be almost fully funded by taxpayer money while simultaneously participating in partisan political activity by requesting a RICO investigation of companies and organizations that disagree with the Obama administration on climate change."

Here's what Smith demanded from IGES:

1. Preserve all e-mail, electronic documents, and data ("electronic records") created since January 1, 2009, that can be reasonably anticipated to be subject to a request for production by the Committee. ...

2. Exercise reasonable efforts to identify and notify current employees, former employees, contractors, and third party groups who may have access to such electronic records that they are to be preserved ...

Like the other scientists, Shukla signed the letter as a private citizen, not a representative of his organization. Yet "current employees, former employees, contractors, and third party groups" will now be hounded for electronic records back to 2009.

Now the whole mess has come to the attention of bottom feeder Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who spends his time hassling scientists with public records requests. He has now filed them with several universities that employ scientists who signed the letter.

Hassling a prestigious research organization for funding studies with funny names

For more than 60 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported basic research in science and engineering. With a $7 billion budget, it is responsible for about 20 percent of the federal government's basic research spending.

The NSF "merit review" process is something of a legend, a multilayered process that sends each grant past a panel of independent scientists, researchers, and educators in the field, with scrupulous rules to avoid conflicts of interest. About 80 percent of applications fail to pass review; receiving an NSF grant is widely seen as a mark of prestige in the science world.

Crucially, the peer review is blind. The names of reviewers are never disclosed.

Republicans on the science committee believe they have discovered an important flaw in the process: Sometimes it awards grants to studies that sound funny.

Smith is convinced that NSF is wasting public money by funding these funny-sounding studies, which has led to a long and acrimonious fight between Republicans on the committee and committee Democrats, NSF's leadership, and much of the academic and research community.

(Said parties have engaged in a long and spirited exchange of correspondence, which you can read in full here.)

Smith is demanding that NSF turn over all the details — including internal communications and the names of reviewers — related to a growing list of grants that he thinks don't sound quite right. It's up to about 50 now, and as journalist Jeffrey Mervis explains, "the scientific community is scratching its head over how Smith compiled his list of questionable grants":

[T]he list is hard to characterize. One grant goes back to 2005, and 13 appear to have expired. The total amount of money awarded is about $26 million. The smallest grant, awarded in 2005, is $19,684 for a doctoral dissertation on "culture, change & chronic stress in lowland Bolivia." The largest, for $5.65 million, is for a project that aims to use innovative education methods to educate Arctic communities about climate change and related issues.

If you do the math, $26 million represents about 0.37 percent of NSF's budget.

Smith demanded that all files related to these grants be sent to his House offices. NSF leadership pushed back, which led to this absurd scene:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade. Each folder contained confidential information that included the initial application, reviewer comments on its merit, correspondence between program officers and principal investigators, and any other information that had helped NSF decide to fund the project.

No one knows what Smith and his staffers are looking for, because they won't say. It's difficult to imagine what staffers think they will learn from rifling through these documents, or why they think the judgments they come to in a few hours will improve upon NSF's peer review process. All they can hope to find is fodder for more press releases.

France Córdova
France Córdova being sworn in as NSF director, with no inkling of what she's in for.

What's clear is that Smith's unilateral use of subpoena power has forced the NSF to compromise the longstanding confidentiality of its review process. It has sent letters to several universities that employ grantees, explaining that it had no choice but to turn over documents. But the damage is already being done. The trust the foundation has built among the scientific community over the past 60 years is in jeopardy.

In another damning letter to her counterpart, Rep. Johnson says:

The plain truth is that there are no credible allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse associated with these 20 awards. The only issue with them appears to be that you, personally, think that the grants sound wasteful based on your understanding of their titles and purpose. Seeking to substitute your judgment for the determinations of NSF's merit review process is the antithesis of the successful principles our nation has relied on to make our research investment decisions. The path you are going down risks becoming a textbook example of political judgment trumping expert judgment.

She goes on to note that on September 16, Fox News carried a story about one of the grants that contained a quote from Smith disparaging it, along with two pieces of information that could only have been gleaned from the confidential materials involved in the grant.

To summarize: The chair of a House committee is using his newly expanded subpoena power to go fishing through the work of the NSF, forcing it to breach its storied confidentiality, searching for bits and pieces of decontextualized information that can be leaked to right-wing media to make the executive branch look bad, on behalf of an ideological quest to cut research funding.

Worse than the Benghazi committee

The science committee, Fox News, the Daily Caller, climate deniers, CEI — at this point, it's all one partisan operation, sharing information and strategies.

Republican radicalization has already laid waste to many of the written and unwritten rules that once governed American politics. The use of congressional committees as tools of partisan intimidation is only a chapter in that grim story.

But the science committee is going after individual scientists, who rarely have the resources on hand to defend themselves from unexpected political attack. It is doing so without any rationale related to the constitutional exercise of its oversight powers — not with a false rationale, but without any stated rationale, no allegations of waste, fraud, or abuse — in service of an effort to suppress inconvenient scientific results and score partisan political points against the executive branch.

The federal government is an enormous supporter of scientific research, to the country's great and enduring benefit, though that support is now under sustained attack. If such funding comes with strings, with the threat that the wrong inquiry or results could bring down a congressional inquisition, researchers are likely to shy away from controversial subjects. The effects on the US scientific community, and on America's reputation as a leader in science, could be dire, lingering on well past the 2016 election.

Video: A small sample of the Benghazi hearing

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