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Door to the future: How Rep. Johnson could make history if Democrats win back the House

CLAIRE PARKER | 8/17/2018, 1:40 p.m.
Silhouetted against the window of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s Capitol Hill office is a model Vulcan 500 series rocket, ...

The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – Silhouetted against the window of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s Capitol Hill office is a model Vulcan 500 series rocket, seemingly ready to blast off into the summer D.C. sky.

It’s a reminder to those who walk into the room that the 82-year-old Dallas Democrat – and ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee – has her eye on the future.

Johnson was first elected to the House in 1992. In the 26 years since then, Democrats have only controlled the U.S. House for six years. But if her party has as good a midterm election as some pundits are predicting, Johnson could soon become both the first African American representative from Texas to chair a standing committee and the first woman from the state to do so. If it happens, she intends to use her gavel to steer that committee’s focus “back to basics” on science research and fighting climate change.

“I certainly won’t be spending time questioning decisions that were arrived at 30 years ago in science research,” she said in a not-so-subtle dig at the committee’s current head and fellow Texan, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith.

Unlike Republicans – whose committee leaders turn over every six years because of term limits – Democrats put considerable stock in seniority when it comes to their committee heads. Colleagues say Johnson, a Democrat who has served on the science committee for 26 years and as its ranking member for eight, is virtually a shoo-in for the chairmanship if Democrats manage to flip the roughly two-dozen seats they need to gain the House majority. The battle for control of the chamber remains up in the air, but political analysts view Democrats as having a slight edge heading into the fall.

The Science, Space and Technology Committee holds jurisdiction over the non-military research and development projects of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the National Weather Service.

Though the committee is not considered a Capitol Hill heavyweight like Homeland Security or Ways and Means, it’s particularly important to Texas, which is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, massive oil fields, several major research universities and more than 300 miles of coastline vulnerable to hurricanes. Texas also produces the most wind power of any U.S. state.

“To me, the committee is really the door to the future. If you don’t do research, you might as well shut up and go out of business,” Johnson said in a recent interview.

If she ends up as chairwoman of the committee, Johnson won’t just be the only Texan in the state’s 36-member U.S. House delegation chairing a committee. She’ll also replace a Texan with whom she has clashed in the past over how that committee should be run.

Smith, who denies that humans are the primary drivers of climate change – despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon emissions are the main cause – has used his gavel and subpoena powers to push for deregulating the EPA and obstructing climate research.