Rep. John Boehner resigned from Congress last week, signaling the end of his short tenure as speaker of the House. Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, presided over one of the least effective (and most antiscience) Congresses in recent memory, and stepped down amidst yet another partisan battle—this one over Planned Parenthood—and vague rumor of a brewing government shutdown.
But exactly how swapping out a speaker will affect science remains an open question. Although the job is largely administrative, Boehner was responsible for creating House committees, which control most science funding. Boehner also stood as a sort of gatekeeper for new legislation—bills seldom come up for a vote on the House floor without the speaker’s stamp of approval. For better or worse, science advocacy and funding could not happen in the House of Representatives without a nod from the speaker.
Boehner was no champion of science. He opposed net neutrality, voted against stem cell research and slashed funding for clean energy at every turn. The former speaker was a continual source of frustration for climate scientists—he liked to admit that climate change exists but then insist there was still a legitimate scientific debate over its causes. Boehner also sparked a minor coup earlier this year when he said that, as a nonscientist, he felt unqualified to even discuss climate change (but perfectly qualified to vote against efforts to stop it).
In a Republican Congress marred by antiscience mores, however, Boehner had often been a rare voice of reason on the House floor. He was an avid supporter of commercial spaceflight and enthusiastic about the possibility of nonembryonic stem cell research. And when Republicans threatened to shut down the government rather than fund Planned Parenthood, a move that would have been terrible for federally funded research, Boehner chose to end his own career rather than enter the fray. In doing so he may have prevented a devastating shutdown.
It is unclear who will take up Boehner’s mantle as speaker of the House. Regardless, with a crucial election on the horizon in 2016 a smart speaker would likely try to keep the status quo at all costs—silencing the loudest Tea Partiers and stalling any controversial legislation to assure the continuation of a GOP House majority and that a Republican president would be ensconced in the White House in 2017.
Over the next 13 months we’re unlikely to see many changes in Congress, no matter who takes over for Boehner. Here are a few of the most likely choices for next speaker of the House, and a bit about their science voting records:
McCarthy, the House majority leader from California (whom actor Kevin Spacey shadowed while preparing for his role as a corrupt politician in Netflix’s House of Cards) is the clear favorite for speaker of the House.
McCarthy would likely continue Boehner’s legacy of a lukewarm relationship with science. Like Boehner, McCarthy is a moderate Republican with a voting record that reflects strong support for space science, opposition to climate change and a rocky relationship with Planned Parenthood. There’s some solace, however, in the fact McCarthy is from a state racked by drought, which has forced him to develop slightly more pro-environment policies than his hawkish colleagues—but not by much. For instance, McCarthy recently pushed a water bill through Congress, but only after removing all the parts that scientists said could provide long-term relief.
Price is a less likely choice for speaker, especially because rumor on the Hill has it that he is setting his sights on majority leader, McCarthy’s current gig.
The Georgia Republican is not even close to moderate. In 2013 he argued against the gay rights bill because he figured it would have negative impacts on public health. Price also raised a bit of scandal in 2010 when he called Pres. Barack Obama’s plan for British Petroleum to set aside $20 billion to clean up their oil spill, “a Chicago-style political shakedown”. And his climate denial is legendary—Price once said that he opposed legislation to stop climate change because of, “many recent revelations of errors and obfuscation in the allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming.”
Scalise is the current House majority whip, third in line for speaker and likely to at least make a bid for majority leader.
Scalise took a dive in popularity early this year after it came to light that he had spoken to a group of white supremacists in 2002, but since then the Louisiana congressman has managed to keep a low profile. Scalise is a climate denier who once argued global warming was not real because the Great Lakes were covered in ice. But he also has taken some interest in funding NASA and, even as he went to war against Planned Parenthood, Scalise worked push a bill through the Houses that would provide more funding for breast cancer research and screenings.