Rep. Lankford looks to not just change what Hill does, but how it does it

Like many of his freshman peers, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is concerned about the federal deficit, unfunded mandates to states and the implications of 2009’s healthcare overhaul.

He also wants to require a two-year budget, prohibit government shutdowns and recast the entire committee system.

That last idea is “semi-revolutionary,” he admits — especially coming from a freshman with no previous political experience — but Lankford says observers should not be surprised.

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“I do take such a deep interest in what we do here, and how we do it,” he recently told The Hill.  “If someone’s going to be a public servant in a legislative role, they should know their stuff.”

On most major votes, including the final debt deal, Lankford has sided with House Republican leaders over his harder-line freshman colleagues.

“I have a disdain for the government shutdown process,” he said. “When you do the math, it costs more to shut it down and restart it than we would actually save.”

He said he hopes to see an automatic continuing resolution built into the budget process that would include an across-the-board cut of 1 percent, to end the threat of future shutdowns.

His gripe with the current congressional committee structure is that its topical breakdown prevents, rather than encourages, proper oversight of federal programs and agencies.

“I quite frankly don’t think the current committee structure is built [for oversight],” he said. “If Agency A and their budget are overseen by three or four committees in the House, and several over in the Senate, it is almost impossible to make changes.”

He added that many committees are so “consumed” with the appropriations process that they have little time for other activities.

Lankford sits on three House committees — Budget, Oversight and Government Reform and Transportation and Infrastructure — and is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.

In that capacity, he recently held a hearing about the Pentagon’s practice of allowing defense contractors to lure poor villagers, often from Asia, to work at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan for little pay.

He called it an issue that “just needs a spotlight.”

“As an office, there are a million issues we could send press releases about, to look busy,” he said. “I am more concerned with asking, ‘What concrete things can we accomplish?’

“These workers are basically indentured servants … they can’t go home because they never make enough money to afford the trip. The legislation exists to fix the problem. We just need to give it our attention.”

For many in the 2011 freshman class, the reality of life on Capitol Hill came as a shock, Lankford said.

“You get here, and you discover quickly that you are one of 435,” he said. “You suddenly feel the pressure: ‘Oh, I can’t deliver on these promises in my first 10 months. So what do I do? I’ll do press releases and make it look like I’m doing things.’ Or, you find things you can do, and you jump in.”

Lankford has introduced several bills that remain in committee — to end unemployment payments to millionaires and to loosen federal rules for state transportation departments, for example.

“What I want to say is: Give states the opportunity to meet standards in their own ways. Don’t tell them how to implement the rules,” he said.

“Major federal regulations for roads, or air quality or water quality, were first intended to do that, but there’s been a shift … I’m not saying it’s just the current presidency, either. It’s been shifting for a long time,” he said.

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Two more bills — strengthening the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 and requiring transparency in the federal grants process — passed out of the Oversight Committee in mid-November.

Lankford is also interested in repatriating corporate profits from overseas by reducing the taxes companies would have to pay on those revenues and in repealing the 2009 healthcare overhaul, though neither, he acknowledged, is the easy fix Americans are seeking.

“Maybe it’s just my optimism, but I think we would bring a half-trillion dollars back to our economy if we did a one-year repatriation,” he said. “That’s a tremendous stimulus, but it is still not a silver bullet.

“I’m also very passionate about rolling back the president’s healthcare law. But even that wouldn’t solve everything … it would create a new chaos, because for two years, everyone has been trying to figure out how they will operate under the system.

“If [healthcare reform] is repealed, we’ve got to start all over again, because there are still problems we can’t ignore.”

Before his run for Congress, Lankford worked in Christian ministry as director of the nation’s largest Baptist youth camp.

He has called his work in Congress a “secular task.”

“Do I think God cares about the economy? I do,” he said. “But your faith is not all you work from here … You have a job to do.”