A year ago, 42-year-old Republican congressman James Lankford was running a youth camp in Oklahoma, and was holding planning sessions for camp activities.
Now, Lankford serves as chairman of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform, and will hold a gavel at congressional hearings.
The Oversight Committee, recently restructured by Chairmen Darrell Issa, has five subcommittees. On Tuesday, Issa gave Lankford and two other freshmen three of the five subcommittee chairmanships.
Lankford was first assigned a seat on the Oversight Committee in December. For most incoming Congressmen, a seat on the House Oversight Committee didn’t seem to be a coveted post; assignments to other committees like Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means generate more hype.
“The Oversight committee was where I wanted to be,” Lankford told me. It seemed to him the best place to start making changes to the status quo. Judging by his recent success, he made a good choice.
Changing the way government does business will be a mammoth task. Issa has set out an ambitious agenda for his committee, promising an aggressive series of hearings to investigate the Obama administration. Everyone will have to play his or her part. Here’s how Lankford sees his:
“I’m not a ‘messiah’ coming to change Washington,” he says. “I don’t come with a political background, so I think it’s part of my responsibility to raise my hand and say ‘Why?’ Folks don’t just want smaller government; they want an efficient small government.”
And Lankford promises to do his best to give it to them. “I like fixing broken systems,” he says. He’s good at improving systems, at least. Before filling the seat Republican Mary Fallin left vacant after her election as Oklahoma’s governor, Lankford directed Falls Creek Youth Camp in Oklahoma, a Baptist retreat near Davis. During his tenure he took the annual attendance from 27,000 to 51,000, making the camp the biggest summer youth retreat in America.
The story of Lankford’s victory is representative of many incoming freshmen. Lankford successfully painted himself as anti-status quo, a political newcomer compelled to enter politics by Washington’s disregard for the foundational principles of conservative government. In fact, he played up his lack of political experience, running an ad with the slogan: “You won’t change the status quo in Washington if you send the status quo to Washington.”
“The people of Oklahoma had a preference for people outside of politics…someone competent who doesn’t come from a political background,” explains Lankford (his landslide victory over state senator Kevin Calvey in the primary run-off supports this theory).
“I’m not saying that everybody that’s involved shouldn’t be there," he adds. "Find who’s competent, find who’s staying true to their values, and go vote for them.”
Asked what he deems his most valuable political asset, Lankford replies: “Working with 51,000 people every summer from rural, urban, inter-city—you know, all types of family—that’s what I do every day, is interact with people.”
And now the camp director will chair a congressional subcommittee, where he will have ample opportunity to interact with people as he and his fellow Republicans attempt to navigate a clear path toward fiscal stability.
In his efforts as a congressman this term, Lankford hopes to keep from “becoming Washington.” As the camp director, husband, and father of two puts it, “I’m not opposed to Washington, but I don’t represent it. I represent Oklahoma.” He plans to travel home every weekend. “It’ll keep me grounded.”
So far, Lankford has got what he wants, as have several of his fellow colleagues. But as Republicans of the 112th Congress get down to business this January, we’ll see if that continues to be the case for the party.
Thomas O'Ban is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.