But he quickly remade the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology into a bulldog as ferocious as any in a Congress riven by partisanship. As the Obama administration escalated its fight against climate change with new environmental regulations, the lawyer from San Antonio, Tex. became a key player among the holdouts.
As lawyers and lobbyists were devising legal strategies to try to dismantle the president’s climate-change agenda, Smith became the lawmaker bent on debunking the science behind it.
Now finishing his third year as chairman, the Yale-educated lawmaker who has represented Texas Hill Country and parts of Austin and San Antonio since 1987 has used new subpoena powers to an unprecedented degree.
He’s called on the administration to account for air-pollution regulations he says are not backed up by science. He’s tried to slash NASA’s budget for earth sciences. He’s subjected grant reviews at the National Science Foundation to extra scrutiny. One of Congress’s most prominent global warming skeptics, Smith, 68, has railed against environmentalists and the media for buying into the “climate-change religion.”
In the fall he took on his biggest target yet, accusing federal scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of colluding to doctor data in a pivotal global warming study that refuted the long-held notion that the planet’s warming had “paused.”
“He’s taken the science committee to a new level,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), a freshman who leads the committee’s oversight panel. “We’re challenging the status quo… You’re talking about very significant regulations imposed by this administration. We’re asking, ‘Is the science behind them valid?'”
His detractors accuse Smith of taking oversight to a new level of bullying by questioning the motives of federal scientists and threatening their freedom. Critics say he’s out of step with mainstream scientific thinking on climate change, which concludes that man-made pollution is behind the planet’s warming.
His confrontation with NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan started over the summer, soon after a team of scientists on her staff published their findings on the global warming pause in the peer-reviewed journal Science.
Smith accused the scientists of altering historical global temperature data and rushing to publish their research to advance Obama’s “extreme climate agenda.” The chairman subpoenaed the scientists and other NOAA staff and demanded that they turn over internal emails related to their research.
Sullivan balked for weeks, finally releasing about 100 emails from non-scientists last week that NOAA officials say contain none of the evidence Smith is seeking. Meanwhile, prominent societies representing thousands of scientists have rallied around her, warning the congressman in a letter in November that his efforts are “establishing a practice of inquests.”
“He is bringing more prominence to the committee by challenging the integrity of scientists,” said Rush Holt, a physicist and New Jersey Democrat who served with Smith in the House from 1999 until this year.
“It’s an interesting way to raise the profile of a science committee,” said Holt, now chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “In fact it seems to be Smith who is substituting politics for evidence and not the scientists.”
Smith, through his staff, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article or to answer questions by email.
He and his allies reject criticism that he is politicizing science as head of a committee that oversees space exploration, research and development and has jurisdiction over agencies from NOAA to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. They say it’s the government that’s doing just that in the service of excessive federal regulation of the environment, with mandates that threaten the economy and crucial industries like gas, oil and coal.
“His constituents see a man that’s fighting for the energy community here in Texas, which is a large part of the employment base,” said Charles McConnell, who served two years in the Obama administration as assistant secretary for the Energy Department, responsible for fossil fuels. Now at Rice University, McConnell has criticized new Environmental Protection Agency air quality regulations as “rampant environmentalism.”
“I don’t believe Smith is against regulation,” said McConnell, who has testified before the committee. “He’s interested in scientifically based regulation.”
A lawyer by training, Smith is a fifth-generation Texan who got his law degree from Southern Methodist University. He told The Hill in 2012 that he has long had a soft spot for science, winning the Bausch & Lomb Science Award in high school and studying astronomy and physics in college. He also has a pilot’s license.
Even as his district has gotten more liberal in recent years as it took in more of Austin, home to the University of Texas, Smith has always been reelected with at least 60 percent of the vote.
He landed as chairman of the science panel after two years heading the Judiciary Committee, where Republican rules limited his term because he had served a total of six years as the panel’s top GOP lawmaker. By late 2013, his seniority on the science panel put him in line for the consolation prize of committee chairman.
Colleagues describe Smith as genial, courtly and well prepared at committee hearings. But his Democratic colleagues say he has sidelined them and their staffs, especially when he has used the GOP’s new, unilateral power in this Congress to depose and subpoena federal officials without a vote.
His push for a more aggressive oversight role for the committee has been polarizing. Early on, for example, his staff spent long hours at the offices of the grant making National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.., scrutinizing projects and criticizing many they believe did not merit federal funding.
As the climate change summit got underway in Paris in November, the science committee held a hearing whose title revealed precisely where Smith stands: “Pitfalls of Unilateral Negotiations at the Paris Climate Change Conference.”
Two of the three witnesses the Republicans called to testify were not scientists, but policy experts representing conservative think tanks, a common practice at hearings. Other witnesses have affiliations with the energy industry, Democrats complain.
Earlier this year, Smith issued a subpoena to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to produce text messages and phone records for Administrator Gina McCarthy as it investigated proposed limits on ozone it said would amount to the most costly federal regulation in history.
He has also demanded EPA correspondence with outside groups on a range of environmental rules and regulations, to show that they collaborated with the administration, for example in curtailing power-plant emissions.
Supporters say the chairman’s roots in Texas —a state that has objected strenuously to EPA rules slashing ozone levels and pollution from coal-fired power plants —form the core of his skepticism.
“Scrutiny of global warming started here,” said Michael Nasi, an Austin air-quality lawyer who represents many of the state’s electric power producers. “It’s incumbent on any federal lawmaker to be asking, are we looking at controls that will really have legitimate health benefits?” Texas regulators, for example, have questioned whether EPA’s emissions crackdown would really improve public health.
Smith has received more than $600,000 from the fossil fuel industry during his career in Congress, campaign finance data show.
On the foundational question of whether human behavior is behind the earth’s rising temperatures, Smith has been called a truth seeker, a climate skeptic and a climate denier. He is fond of saying that “good science” should rule the day, while his detractors say it’s Smith who has lost sight of good science.
Just before he was installed as committee chairman, Smith said in a statement in response to questions from reporters that he believes climate change “is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles, sun spots, and human activity.”
“But scientists still don’t know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing.”