Path Home Shows 2015 Show Archive July 2015 Show 1530 James Lankford - Reflections on Senate

James Lankford - Reflections on Senate

Freshman U.S. Sen. James Lankford reflects on why Washington, D.C., reminds him of a middle school lunchroom.
James Lankford - Reflections on Senate

James Lankford - Reflections on Senate

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James Lankford

U.S. Senator for Oklahoma

Show Details

Show 1530: James Lankford - Reflections on Senate
Air Date: July 26, 2015



Rob McClendon: Well, in his inaugural speech before the U.S. Senate, James Lankford told his colleagues his political philosophy can be defined by what he calls the 3 Ds: debt, defense and directives. Now, to learn more about those and more about the man behind them, I was able to sit down with Oklahoma’s newest U.S. senator in his office overlooking trendy 10th and Broadway in downtown Oklahoma City.

Rob McClendon: Well, Sen. Lankford, last year the Pew Charitable Trust had a poll that said about 15 percent of Americans approved of Congress, and that’s pretty much a bipartisan, mutual disdain for both Republicans and Democrats. Why would one want to be in Congress today?

James Lankford: Actually if you’re gonna get a chance to serve your nation and turn this around, then you have to engage. There’s this belief of, “It’s so far gone just walk away from it.” I don’t believe that’s true. We’ve had a functioning republic since 1789. We can’t just give up and say, “It’s suddenly hard.” It’s not any harder than it was during the Civil Rights time. It’s not any harder than it was during the Civil War. It’s not any harder. We’ve had very difficult moments, a Great Depression, on and on and on, where we’ve looked at government and said, “This is not going well.” But we turned it around as Americans. You can take Will Rogers – every single joke Will Rogers gave about Congress in the 1930s still works today. So this belief that somehow something’s dramatically different now than what it was before, I think begs the traditions of history. And there are some interesting dynamics when they, when someone asks a poll about what’s your perception of Congress? When I talk to other people about Congress, almost always they think about the other party, whichever party they are, they think about the other party. And they’ll say well, I don’t like what they’re saying or what they’re doing. When you talk about the president, you’re talking about one party, one point of view. When you talk about Congress, it’s multifaceted. So, yeah, people, people get frustrated with people in Congress – sometimes it’s their own representative, sometimes it’s someone else’s.

Rob: Now, in your inaugural, your first speech to the Senate, you compared Congress to like being at a middle school lunch period.

Lankford: Middle school lunch. I told my wife several years ago when I first came into the House of Representatives, I had this deja vu moment thinking I’d felt this way before, but I’ve never been in politics or in Congress. But I know this feeling. And after about six months I called her and I said, “I finally figured out what this feeling is to be in Congress. It’s the emotion you have in middle school lunch. It’s that feeling of, I get more popular by sitting at my table and making fun of everyone else at everyone else’s table. And if I ever say something nice about someone else at another table, my table shakes their heads and says, ‘Why would you do that?’ But if I ever say something unkind, everybody says, ‘Way to go.’” Welcome to Congress.

Lankford: And the whole goal of middle school lunch when you’re sitting there at the table is, be nice to your friends, be mean to everyone else. That’s the feeling in Congress at times. If you, if you sit with your little group and be mean to everyone else’s, your group praises you. But if at any time you start talking about other groups and other people in a positive way and say, “You know what, they may have a good idea, they may have a good thing,” your group makes fun of you and says, “Well, you’re not really with our group if you’re talking positive about another group.” I don’t know of another time in life other than middle school lunch that’s really like that moment. My challenge really to my peers and to the nation is, let’s affirm ideas. There’s a great saying, “The truth is not responsible for its owner.” If it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea, and let’s push it. Now, I’m, I’m a conservative. There’s no big secret in that. I think those ideas work for every race, for every region of the country, for every neighborhood in America. If I don’t believe those I’m willing to be able to re-examine and go what does actually work because I want this actually to be able to work. But I believe these, these facts on the ground actually prove that out. But I’m willing to be able to engage with people and work on both convincing people to disagree with me, but also listening to others and try to treat people with respect in the process.

Rob: Does that same engagement and courtesy, does that extend to the White House and all the administration?

Lankford: Sure. There are times that I’ve absolutely strongly disagreed with the White House and some of the policy directions that they have gone. Because I think it’s the wrong direction for the nation. There are times that I agree. I’ve taken some flack from some people in Oklahoma because I believe in free-trade. I believe that we should engage in actually encountering other countries and trying to limit tariff barriers because I think the American workers and the American products will win. The president also believes that. And I have folks in my own party saying, “You’re helping the president do a trade agreement.” I say, “No, I’m helping the nation actually do trade.”

Rob: In fact, it was Lankford and other Republicans who helped pass Trade Promotion Authority through Congress.

President Obama: I think it’s fair to say that getting these bills through Congress has not been easy.


Rob: Helping President Obama in a key area when those in the president’s own party wouldn’t.

Lankford: We have 350,000 companies across the United States that do international trade. Why would we want to limit that? Why would we want to decrease our economy by trying to limit our trade? So when the president’s right, I don’t mind actually saying, “The president’s right on this one.” When he’s wrong, I don’t mind stepping up and saying I disagree.

Rob: Your predecessor Dr. Tom Coburn had a reputation of being a very independent –

Lankford: He was.

Rob: thinker. How do you balance that with being collegial enough with all, everyone in the Senate, whether, whatever party, to get things done?

Lankford: You have to -- the Senate’s a very different dynamic than the House. The House, you have 435 people, so if you can get 218 on anything you win, and you run over the other party. It doesn’t matter. In the Senate you have to have 60 to even bring something up for a vote. So literally, people that are on the other party than you, you have to have them to actually even discuss this matter on the Senate floor. And so it is a more collegial environment, but it has to be based on the rules of the Senate. It forces people that disagree into one room to start settling some issues. To say if we’re gonna bring this to the floor, if we’re gonna solve this, this group of 60 has to come to some resolution to be able to bring it up for debate. That’s a positive thing quite frankly for America. I think it’s a good structure that the founders put in place to have a place where ideas slow down and it forces some cooperation, because quite frankly, we as Americans don’t agree on everything.

Rob: But it is finding that common ground that in his short time in the Senate has been Lankford’s strength. Partnering with the likes of Elizabeth Warren, the Oklahoma-born and raised U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

Lankford: So let’s take out some of the issues we disagree with, but let’s move on a set of ideas. It’s not a bad thing. I have different bills. I have a bill with Elizabeth Warren. We disagree on 99 percent. On this 1 percent, we agree on, and I’m gonna work with her on that one bill. I have a bill right now with Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota. She and I agree on several things. We’re working on several things together on it. I have other bills dealing with other, with other Democrats. On the areas where we can agree, I’m gonna work and say I can agree with that section, we’re gonna have to drop that for me to participate. They’re gonna be the same thing on some of the bills they agree with me on.

Rob: And it is that attitude to not always toe the party line that could be Sen. Lankford’s greatest strength or his greatest weakness. Lankford’s predecessor, Dr. Tom Coburn, was famous for his independent streak, often to the consternation of those in his party, Oklahoma’s congressional delegation and even some voters. And just how easily Lankford is able to chart his own independent course could well determine his success both in the Senate and at the ballot box. Now, when I return, we’ll continue our conversation on the role government plays in our lives.