James Lankford was a quick study in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to a leadership position after just a few years. Now Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is boning up on life in the U.S. Senate, having won election last year to replace the retiring Tom Coburn.
Coburn was a fiscal hawk who was never bashful about criticizing members of both parties for what he considered unnecessary spending and government waste. He also warned often about the loss of liberty stemming from an expansive central government.
Lankford has concerns of his own, including about the detrimental effects of the Affordable Care Act and the potential negative fallout from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Like his predecessor, Lankford is direct in answering questions, as he did last week during a visit with The Oklahoman’s editorial board.
The Supreme Court ruling that upheld Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges caught Lankford and other conservatives by surprise. “I had not allowed myself to consider that this court would say the law doesn’t mean what the law says,” Lankford said.
Had the court ruled as conservatives hoped, it would have provided “a unique moment to actually do some real changes. That moment doesn’t exist now.”
Change pieces of Obamacare
Lankford said the best approach now is to try to change small pieces of Obamacare — for example, restore the 40-hour work week and repeal the medical device tax. “Our job now is to do whatever we can to protect the people that we represent from the harmful effects of the law,” he said.
Obamacare also allows for creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a 15-member group of presidential appointees charged with cutting Medicare spending. Its proposals become law automatically unless Congress approves similar Medicare cuts. IPAB will be able to decide, for example, which new drugs or medical devices will be covered by Medicare. Lankford and others worry about those ramifications, understandably so. “It may help with costs, but not with health care long term,” he said.
One long-term concern of Congress is highway funding. The committee headed by Oklahoma’s senior senator, Republican Jim Inhofe of Tulsa, recently approved a six-year highway bill that would mean $4.2 billion for Oklahoma over the life of the bill. Finding the money to cover all six years is the next challenge, because federal gas taxes won’t do it.
Lankford noted that as the highway trust fund has decreased in the past many years, the number of roads in the federal inventory has increased. “Part of that repaving or part of that sidewalk or part of that striping or that intersection signal was actually federal dollars,” he said. “We can’t keep doing that."
National security concerns
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Lankford is privy to classified information about national security concerns. His impressions thus far?
“There are a group of patriots who serve us that none of us will ever meet,” he said. “We’ll never give up our seats for them because they don’t wear a uniform, but they do some pretty remarkable work to keep our nation safe. … There are very real threats around the world all the time. Many of them are cyber and are happening all the time.”
In terms of physical threats, al-Qaida and ISIS remain headliners. Whereas al-Qaida prefers to train its troops and retain control of them, ISIS “doesn’t do that. They don’t care.” What they care most about, Lankford said, is inspiring others to act, which makes the challenge of defending against ISIS all the more difficult.
Lankford believes making a real dent against ISIS requires replacing Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria, something the Obama administration has foregone.
Iran presents another foreign policy challenge. Unlike many of his colleagues, Lankford believes the United States should engage diplomatically with Iran. However, he also said he’s concerned Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry want a nuclear agreement so desperately, they will settle for one that they know Iran will violate. “They keep talking about the snap-back sanctions. You’re not going to be able to snap those back,” Lankford said.
Energy plays a role in national security. The United States is getting closer to exporting its natural gas. The next hurdle will be lifting the 1970s-era ban on crude oil exports, something Lankford said isn’t a slam dunk with all Republicans in the Senate.
“I talk to them about the geopolitical issues, because that’s really what they contemplate more than the jobs or the prices,” he said. “The difference between Russia providing natural gas and oil to the Ukraine and eastern Europe, and the United States providing it, is tremendous. The geopolitical power of providing energy is similar to the geopolitical power of providing arms to a country. You’re very dependent long term on that country … when you have an arms relationship. An energy relationship is just like that. You’re very dependent on that relationship and you’re going to work hard to make sure it works. We should have that as a possibility.”
Same-sex marriage ruling
Closer to home, Lankford said he’ll be interested to see where the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriages leads. A Southern Baptist and former longtime director of the Falls Creek Youth Camp in southern Oklahoma, Lankford is concerned religious colleges and universities may soon be put to the test.
As an example, he said two married gay students could apply for married student housing at a religious university. If the request is denied, “there will be an army of attorneys that will challenge their nonprofit status, their Pell grants and their ability to get student loans,” he said.
“One of the funding mechanisms of the Affordable Care Act is federalizing most student loans, so there’s almost no privately funded student loans. So if your school is a private institution and loses nonprofit status, and you can’t get any student loans through private donors or foundations, and you can’t get Pell grants, you just killed that school.”
Lankford continued. “The Supreme Court has to answer the same question they just answered in gay marriage: Is there a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion in America, yes or no? I believe that’s pretty clear: There’s a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. … By the way, I think a gay citizen in America is an equal citizen in America. But once it gets pushed to that level, we’ll have to see where Americans respond and what happens and what the courts decide, because that won’t take long to get tested.”
There is much going on in Washington. Oklahomans can rest assured that their freshman U.S. senator is staying on top of it and, where possible, working to make a positive difference.