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Congressional elections may shake up federal science, innovation policy

November 08, 2018
By: Jason Rittenberg

Tuesday’s elections resulted in a Democratic majority in the House, but the changes for the next Congress go far beyond this outcome. Flipping party control means new chairs for every committee in the House; many Senate Republicans in leadership positions are reaching their party’s term limits, yielding new committee seniority; and, retirements and incumbent losses yield further changes. For the bipartisan issues of science and innovation, this shake up will produce new opportunities and uncertainties.

The changes to the House will be the most profound. By definition, a change in the majority party entails changing the chair of every committee. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) will now lead the appropriations subcommittee that funds commerce and science; Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) will likely chair the science, space and tech committee; and, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) will chair the small business committee.

The House will also be shaped by Republican term limits on leadership positions and committee chairs, as well as retirements. House science committee chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) was term-limited and is retiring at the end of the session. With Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) — a tremendous supporter of the Regional Innovation Strategies program — losing his re-election contest, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is next in line to serve as ranking member of the committee. The House appropriations committee will see a new ranking member, as current chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) did not seek re-election.

The platform announced earlier this year by the Democratic leadership indicates several pro-innovation policies that may be on these committees’ agendas:

  • Investing in k-12 STEAM, on-the-job training, affordable degrees;
  • Doubling public investment in science;
  • Promoting “research and career ecosystems” including through regional innovation hubs;
  • Expanding broadband access; and,
  • Incentivizing private R&D among established and startup businesses.

Of course, Republican control of the Senate means that policies will need to achieve bipartisan consensus to advance. Many of the proposals in this “Better Deal” platform — and many other science and innovation initiatives — have support from both parties. However, the politics of debates on other issues, such as entitlement reform and administration oversight, may affect interest or opportunities for collaborating to advance science and innovation.

Inter-chamber discussions of policy will also be affected by new Senate leadership. Republicans will have new policy leadership on science and innovation issues. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is likely to move from chair of commerce, transportation and science to the number two position in Senate leadership. Based on seniority, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is next in line for the committee. If the election results in Florida stand after a potential recount, then Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) will also be replaced in his position as ranking member of the committee.

Clearly, many questions about opportunities in the 116th Congress still need to be answered. SSTI’s Innovation Advocacy Council will continue working with both parties and chambers to support science, tech, innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the country. Contact Jason Rittenberg (614.901.1690 | rittenberg@ssti.org) to get engaged in these conversations.

congress, elections, science, innovation, policy