By Patrick B. McGuigan
The only member of the Oklahoma congressional delegation to oppose the New Year's deal on the so-called "fiscal cliff" -- U.S. Rep. James Lankford -- has decried federal "debt, debt, debt" throughout his brief career in politics.
Before his first run for public office in 2010, Lankford was best known as director of the state's largest Christian youth camp. With that background, he might have been expected to enter politics as a full-throated advocate of traditional morality. He is indeed a multi-issue politician, but his vote on the cliff cements his role as a leading advocate of spending restraint among newer members of the U.S. House.
In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Rep. Lankford expressed disappointment that the late-night debate did not become the moment he hoped for, an opportunity meaningfully to reduce federal expenditures.
Lankford contended the recent confrontation in Congress could have been "a moment to reduce our mounting federal deficit, but the final deal did not accomplish that goal. Our nation's debt will continue to climb, even after the fiscal cliff bill passage, leaving the major problem of spending still unresolved."
After the vote, Lankford promised to devote time and energy on the House Policy Committee, of which he is newly-elected chairman, to sequestration (automatic program cuts now delayed for 60 days) and the looming debt ceiling decisions.
As chairman of the Policy group, Lankford is the fifth highest-ranking Republican. He said, "We must get ahead. If we continue to play defense, we will continue to lose ground. We have three critical fiscal issues approaching our nation in the next 60 days.
"Congress will have to deal with the debt ceiling, the 60-day stay for the sequester, and -- because the Senate refuses to pass a budget -- another battle over funding the government through a continuing resolution.
"All three of these events are critical junctures for our nation to find a responsible path forward to begin paying down our debt. We will need Members on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol to work together to find a solution to our debt and deficit, and we cannot wait until the Eleventh Hour."
The second-termer will soon have new opportunities to advance his strict views on fiscal restraint. This week, Lankford was chosen chairman of the House Committee on Oversight's Subcommittee on Energy, Health Care and Entitlements.
Lankford told CapitolBeatOK he is focused: "Our entitlement programs need immediate attention to ensure they maintain proper benefit discernment and reduce administrative costs and bureaucracy wherever possible to protect our seniors and those in need. Inefficiency, fraud, waste and mismanagement in the federal government impact every American taxpayer."
The 154-page "cliff" bill retains Bush-era income tax relief for most income tax payers, but raises taxes on upper-income earners, while including a dozen tax credits for "green energy" and 31 other credits for various business interests, including Hollywood film production.
Analysts say the deal has a 41-1 ratio of taxes to budget cuts. Lankford and other critics of the deal note that additional tax increases include a variety of levies relating to "ObamaCare", as well a 2 percent increase in payroll levies on all taxpayers.
Although he supported an increase in the federal debt ceiling limit in 2011, Lankford's focus on spending has pulled him into more focused opposition to expanded government spending.
He has defended House Republican proposals for Medicare and Medicaid reforms, to stave off or avoid a health care spending crisis.
One of his first actions in Congress, two years ago this week, was to join in the group of House members who read the entire U.S. Constitution aloud. He looks at laws through the prism that reflects, "principles of freedom, liberty and limited government our country was built upon."
The Oklahoma City Republican, a Southern Baptist, took a leading role in 2011 in opposition to implementation of a state-based health exchange, and in support of religious leaders opposed to the Affordable Care Act's new requirements that religiously-affiliated institutions provide abortion coverage.
Lankford has also pressed for regulatory and contracting reforms, bringing to bear his knowledge of computer technology. (Among Oklahoma political analysts, he was considered the most deft user of social media in his first campaign for public office, in 2010.)
Although House leaders are technically limited to service on one major committee, Lankford was granted a waiver to continue serving on the Appropriations and Budget Committee, where in his first term he was a close ally of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.
Frequently aligned on important votes, Lankford and Ryan split on the New Year's cliff tally. Ryan was among the 85 Republicans who joined House Speaker John Boehner in support of the cliff deal, along with 172 Democrats. Lankford was among the 151 Republicans who voted against the deal, joined by 16 Democrats.
Asked why more than one-third of House Republicans supported the deal crafted by Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, Lankford reflected, "Without question there are elements of the final fiscal cliff deal that conservatives can support, including: permanent tax rates at the Bush level for the vast majority of Americans, a permanent fix to the Alternative Minimum tax (AMT), a permanent adoption tax credit and an extension of the small business tax credits."
However, he continued with pointed criticism of the president and the upper chamber, saying, "When the President slow-walked the negotiation, it prolonged the final decision to a moment when all American's would be hurt if he did not get his tax policy. It is entirely reasonable to work to protect as many Americans as possible from the economic effects of a major tax increase. The House passed sequestration and tax bills in May and August of 2012 and waited for the Senate legislative response, which did not come until 2:30 a.m., January 1, 2013."
Lankford was intrigued that more than a dozen House Democrats opposed the deal pushed by Sen. Reid, commenting, "I could not begin to guess why they voted anymore than those who stated their opinions in media reports. Some Democrats wanted the tax increases on a larger group of Americans. Remember, Howard Dean advocated for all tax rates go up for every bracket, saying that America was more prosperous in the Clinton years when taxes were higher."
His vote on the measure was in keeping with his persistent focus on "budget, budget, budget, and spending, spending, spending" throughout his career, Lankford says constituents in his central Oklahoma District are cheering. They "told me repeatedly that they don't mind if their taxes go up to fix the deficit, but they don't want their taxes to go up to pay for even more government spending. The overwhelming number of phone calls and emails into my office in the past three weeks have opposed increased tax rates without significant spending cuts."
Junior U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, a well-known budget "hawk," backed the cliff deal, along with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, and Reps. Tom Cole, Frank Lucas, John Sullivan and Dan Boren, the delegation's only Democrat.
Sullivan and Boren leave office this week as the new Congress takes office. They will be replaced, respectively, by Jim Bridenstine and Markwayne Mullin, giving the state an all-Republican congressional delegation for only the second time in history.