District 21 Congressman Lamar Smith, left, (R) hosted an early morning “Fall Forum” last week at the Shady Hollow Community Center. -photo by Valerie Caselli
by Penny Levers
Veteran Congressman Lamar Smith is hopeful that the change in the leadership would bring more bi-partisanship to the House, but it seems unlikely that the Science Committee he chairs would find much common ground on the issue of climate change anytime soon.
District 21 Congressman Lamar Smith (R) hosted an early morning “Fall Forum” last week at the Shady Hollow Community Center. Since the last redistricting which took effect in 2013, Smith’s district is mostly to the west of Travis County, but includes a small part of San Antonio in Bexar County, along with another oddly shaped section that reaches into Southwest Austin.
That section includes Sunset Valley, Travis Country, much of the area around the “Y”, Western Oaks (but not most of Village of Western Oaks or Legend Oaks) and the part of Shady Hollow that is east of Brodie. Circle C and other Southwest Austin neighborhoods not in District 21 are a part of District 25, represented by Roger Williams (R).
Smith, who has been in Congress since 1987, used the first part of the hour to give the few dozen constituents in attendance an update on recent events in the House and to express his hope that the future would be more bi-partisan and productive than recent years.
“Paul Ryan is articulate and a fresh start from a younger generation,” he said. “We can’t keep doing things the way we have,” he added, referring to John Boehner’s tenure. The Congressman pointed out that a new change in the rules will now give congresspeople 72 hours to review pending legislation. “There was a lot of abuse with the 3-day rule,” he said, referring to what had recently been in effect. He explained that a bill would get posted at the end of one day and then come up for a vote in the early morning after the following day, giving legislators a single day to look over lengthy pieces of legislation.
Smith also decried President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone Pipeline, saying it would have produced 42,000 jobs. (A Washington Post fact check of that figure back in January disputed that and pointed out that almost all jobs created would be temporary construction jobs lasting less than half a year.)
Smith went on to talk about his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal, citing several concerns about the details in the plan, including the fact that the United States would not be able to furnish any of the inspectors since we do not have official diplomatic relations with Iran.
The Congressman then went on to discuss the work of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, of which he is the chair. “This is a fun committee,” Smith said, “and involves oversight of NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).” He briefly touched on the highly controversial subpoenas his committee has issued to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get their internal e-mails, saying they needed to determine if government scientists are skewing the data to make climate change appear worse than it is. This and related topics also came up later during the question and answer session. He also justified his committee’s oversight of NSF grants to make sure the research “was in the national interest.”
Smith was probably most animated when he discussed what was happening in the area of space exploration. “We have been looking for earth’s cousin and we have found it in Kepler-452 B,” he said. The planet, which is 10 light years away, has an orbit in its sun’s habitable zone, has liquid water and also methane and oxygen in the atmosphere. “There is a 99% chance that there is life on this planet,” he said. Smith was also excited about the future of space tourism. “We will be able to go into low-earth orbit very soon,” he said, although the high price tag will limit the opportunity to the extremely well-off.
On a light note, Smith introduced author Julian Read who was in the audience. Read, who worked for Governor John Connelly at the time of the Kennedy Assassination, wrote the book “JFK’s Final Hours in Texas” which Smith had recently read. Smith explained that the Library of Congress put on dinners centered around the favorite meals of various presidents and when they were planning an LBJ dinner, Smith pointed out the description of the dinner planned at the LBJ Ranch on the day of the assassination and that was used in planning the dinner.
Speaking fondly of the bygone days of bi-partisanship, the congressman said “I will probably get in trouble for this, but Ted Kennedy was my example. He would take a half loaf in a heartbeat and then come back and try and get the rest of the loaf.” Smith used as an example his six-year effort with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to reform the patent system, for which he was named “Legislator of the Year.” He then recounted that when he was head of the Judiciary Committee (he is still a member, although no longer the chair) he had a bi-partisan retreat and was able to work successfully to pass several bills with John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
“I have not had the same success with the Science Committee,” he admitted, making reference to Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat, who sent him a chastising public letter on October 23 regarding the NOAA e-mail subpoenas. The letter ended “I, along with the other Democratic Members of this Committee, stand ready to work with the majority on legitimate issues of oversight. However, we won’t be complicit in the illegitimate harassment of our Nation’s research scientists.”
When the congressman finally opened questions up to the audience, the first question he took was about his reputation as a climate change denier. Smith denied being a denier, calling himself a “semi-skeptic” saying that he does not know how much of climate change is man-made and how much other “natural cycles” are affecting the climate. He threw out some figures about how few parts per million of CO2 has been added by mankind to the atmosphere, using that to justify inaction so as not to disrupt our economy.
Some audience members came armed with specific issues that were affecting their lives. A man in the audience spoke about the troubles he had flying commercially with his wife who was on oxygen. While some airlines were able to be accommodating, others were not and he suggested that ADA (Americans with Disability Act) needed reform. Smith told him to send him a letter and that with his chairmanship, he could possibly approach the issue from the point of the FAA (Federal Aviation Act). Another couple, who had just been flooded out of their house on Onion Creek for the second time, wanted to know what the federal government could do in helping with flood control. The issue of cybersecurity also came up. Smith said that “there is over a 50% chance that that is where the next attack will be.”
When one audience member brought up the need to look at diseases from a prevention point to save money on treating the full-blown disease, Smith made the interesting point that his committee can claim jurisdiction on just about any subject as long as they put “the science of” in front of it. “‘The Science of Dyslexia’ hearings had more hits on the website than anything else,” he said.