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You’re looking at a man who will soon sit in a powerful chair. His name is Representative Lamar Smith, he’s controversial (especially in internet circles), and he’s just been appointed to lead a committee in Congress — making him a key power player in crafting the nation’s science and technology policy. In the days since he was chosen for the job by his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives, some have condemned the selection, questioning Congress’ preservation of the committee’s status quo and its ability to make appropriate appointments to positions that are considered vital to the nation’s future.
Smith is set to take over his new chairmanship of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology next year, but it’s not the veteran lawmaker’s first time sitting at the head of the table in Congress. He’s leaving the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where in 2011 he proposed a copyright enforcement bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act. (SOPA did not go well for Representative Smith, or for the bill’s corporate backers that wanted some legislative C4 from Congress to blow up the internet.) But while SOPA’s controversy burns bright in recent memory, it’s just one data point of many. Since 1980, for nearly half of his life, Representative Smith has been a professional lawmaker — and most of those years have already been spent on the committee he’s about to lead.
FOR NEARLY HALF OF HIS LIFE, SMITH HAS BEEN A PROFESSIONAL LAWMAKER
As Representative Smith enters his 27th year in Congress, he’s had plenty of time to develop a portfolio of legislation around science and technology. Let’s take a look at what he’s done, where he’s headed, and what it means for America’s future.
HOUSE OF COMMITTEES
I’m just a bill
Yes I’m only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I’m stuck in committee
And I’ll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
A few words on Congress are necessary to convey the power and opportunity Smith will possess when he takes over as chairman of the science committee in 2013. It starts, simply enough, with how a bill becomes a law — there’s immense power in process. While members of Congress filter down to the chamber floor every now and then, the real business of government happens across the street from the US Capitol building: in the meeting rooms of congressional committees.
COMMITTEES DIVVY UP CONGRESS’ DIRTY WORK
Committees divvy up Congress’ dirty work: bill writing, investigating, debating, editing, and the overall stewardship of legislation. And while some committees are more powerful than others, the chairmen of most standing committees or their subcommittees have the ability to set the policy agenda. In short, committees have extensive authority over bills, and can prevent them from making it for a vote on the House floor. Within their own realms of policy, committees and committee chairmen are the primary gatekeepers of law.