Monday, July 18, 2005

Boehlert v. Barton: Chairmen Square Off

Well I know which Republican I'm backing in this fight ...

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton and his staff have got Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (my own congressman, I will add, proudly) all riled up. Barton recently began an "investigation" into three scientists who have published findings indicating the existence of global warming. Boehlert responded in a letter made public Sunday, writing to Barton that his committee has jurisdiction over climate change matters and that Barton should call off his inquiry:

"My primary concern about your investigation is that its purpose seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than to learn from them, and to substitute congressional political review for scientific review. That would be pernicious," Boehlert wrote, in strikingly blunt language. The ranking member of Barton's own committee, Democrat Henry Waxman, also has called for an end to Barton's investigation, writing on July 1 that some might see the review "as a transparent effort to bully and harass climate change experts who have reached conclusions with which you disagree."

A Barton spokesman, responding with a level of sarcasm rarely seen between members of the same party said "Chairman Barton appreciates heated lectures from Representatives Boehlert and Waxman, two men who share a passion for global warming. We regret that our little request for data has given them a chill. Seeking scientific truth is, indeed, too important to be imperiled by politics, and so we'll just continue to ask fair questions of honest people and see what they tell us. That's our job."

In response, a Science Committee staff member, David Goldston, said of Boehlert's note "It's unusual for a chairman to write this kind of letter, but we feel the situation's unusual. We are surprised at the level of sarcasm Mr. Barton's spokesman has used to respond to our serious concerns."

As the Washington Post notes, more than twenty scientists other than the three being targeted by Barton have written to Barton protesting the probe, and the president of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that he would appoint an independent panel to "assess the scientific findings on climate change." In a letter to Barton, he wrote "A congressional investigation, based on the authority of the House Commerce Committee, is probably not the best way to resolve a scientific issue, and a focus on individual scientists can be intimidating."

Barton, through his spokesman, replied: "We can't evaluate the idea without having seen it, and maybe it's a darned fine one, but an offer that says, please just go away and leave the science to us, ahem, very intelligent professionals, is likely to get the reception it deserves. We get a lot of offers to butt out from folks who would rather avoid public scrutiny, and reputable scientists wouldn't feel comfortable in the company of most of them."

Such undeserved arrogance really makes my stomach turn; I know I would feel much more comfortable accepting the conclusions of an NAS study than I would anything coming from the hands of Joe Barton or his over-flippant staffers.

The media will play this up as a "tiff" between senior Republicans. It is that, but it's about much more than that. Honest scientific inquiry is vital to our lawmakers as they seek to develop policies do deal with issues where politics and science intersect. If scientists are made to fear inquisitions from hostile congressional committees even (especially!) outside their range of jurisdiction, it will stifle discussions and may in the end lead to a trend of groupthink from the scientific community that would be incredibly unhealthy.

Joe Barton ought to stick to his own turf. And his staffers should learn how to temper their words. Keep up the good work, Boehlert; don't back down now.

[Update: Dennis Sanders over at The Moderate Republican has more on this; he's beginning a "RINOs on the Rampage Watch" with it. -- 12:05 a.m.]


Post a Comment

<< Home