James Lankford Emerges As Potential Heir to the Speakership

Rep. James Lankford talks to reporters while flanked by his fellow house republican freshman about an extension to the payroll tax cuts, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Nov. 20, 2013, 4:16 p.m.

James Lank­ford could not res­ist.

It was the wee morn­ing hours of Oct. 17, and the House had just passed a Sen­ate pro­pos­al to re­open the gov­ern­ment and raise the debt ceil­ing. Lank­ford, the Re­pub­lic­an Policy Com­mit­tee chair­man and fifth-rank­ing mem­ber of House GOP lead­er­ship, was the only mem­ber of Speak­er John Boehner’s team to vote against the pro­pos­al — a de­cision that did not go un­noticed by his peers.

As the fi­nal vote tally was an­nounced, Lank­ford walked to­ward the cen­ter-rear of the room, where a small clutch of House con­ser­vat­ives huddled in their usu­al spot. As he ap­proached, Lank­ford’s col­leagues, all of whom had voted against the Sen­ate bill, nudged one an­oth­er.

Lank­ford, who car­ries him­self with the sober­ness of a states­man, stopped sev­er­al feet shy of the cluster. Then he broke in­to a wide grin. The group burst in­to laughter, and Lank­ford re­ceived a round of hearty slaps on the back from law­makers who knew that the Ok­laho­man, des­pite his vote, was a loy­al sol­dier to Boehner.

“I knew what he was try­ing to ac­com­plish,” Lank­ford said of Boehner shortly after the vote.

This abil­ity to straddle two uni­verses — the in­sur­gent con­ser­vat­ive move­ment and the ma­na­geri­al Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment — ex­plains how Lank­ford, a sopho­more law­maker with no pre­vi­ous polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence, as­cen­ded to the House lead­er­ship in only his second term. It also ex­plains why some law­makers and seni­or GOP aides whis­per his name as a sleep­er can­did­ate to suc­ceed Boehner one day as speak­er of the House.

Lank­ford, in his au­thor­it­at­ive bari­tone, dis­misses such spec­u­la­tion. The 45-year-old law­maker is con­tent in his role as policy chair­man, which en­tails steer­ing the House GOP to­ward long-term stra­tegic ob­ject­ives and be­ing Boehner’s “eyes and ears” in the con­fer­ence. That means mov­ing law­makers past the rhet­or­ic­al skir­mishes that con­sume Con­gress on a daily basis, and edu­cat­ing his “frus­trated” col­leagues on the im­port­ance of the big pic­ture.

“Where­as the [ma­jor­ity] whip might deal with something that’s hap­pen­ing in a week or two weeks, we’re try­ing to deal with something that might hap­pen in six or eight months,” Lank­ford says.

It’s a nat­ur­al fit for the wonk­ish Lank­ford, a self-de­scribed prag­mat­ist who ob­sesses over policy de­tails but ad­mits to be­ing polit­ic­ally na­ive. When he sought out his chair­man­ship, Lank­ford says, he had to con­sult his fel­low Ok­laho­man, Rep. Tom Cole, to guide him through the in­tern­al polit­ics of Cap­it­ol Hill.

“What I love to do is the policy. The polit­ics, I’m brand-new at,” Lank­ford notes. “Lots of folks here are great at the polit­ics. They see the long term, and they know the moves. They’ll out­man­euver me all day long on the polit­ics.”

Lank­ford gradu­ated from South­west­ern Baptist Theo­lo­gic­al Sem­in­ary in 1994 with a mas­ter’s de­gree in di­vin­ity and soon after ac­cep­ted a po­s­i­tion at the Falls Creek Baptist Con­fer­ence Cen­ter, the na­tion’s largest Chris­ti­an youth camp. He was quickly pro­moted to camp dir­ect­or, and for the next 13 years he served as the ad­min­is­trat­or of a 400-acre fa­cil­ity that hosts more than 50,000 teen­agers each sum­mer.

Look­ing back, Lank­ford’s ex­per­i­ence cor­ralling thou­sands of ram­bunc­tious teens turned out to be ex­cel­lent pre­par­a­tion for his next ca­reer. “If you can handle that many ju­ven­iles at one time,” one of Lank­ford’s fel­low fresh­man law­makers told him in 2011, “you should be speak­er of the House.”

But Lank­ford said Con­gress was “nev­er on the radar” dur­ing his years at Falls Creek. Though he sensed an “un­set­tling” feel­ing that God was pre­par­ing him for a ma­jor pro­fes­sion­al change, the or­dained min­is­ter nev­er con­sidered a ca­reer in polit­ics. Then, in the fall of 2009, Lank­ford read about then-Rep. Mary Fal­l­in’s de­cision to va­cate her con­gres­sion­al seat and run for gov­ernor of Ok­lahoma. At that mo­ment, he knew what God was “call­ing” him to do.

“I don’t want to get mys­tic­al and crazy about it, but it was just very clear,” Lank­ford re­calls. “I can’t ex­plain it oth­er than — I read that art­icle and thought, “˜This is what I’m sup­posed to do.’ “

Lank­ford won a sev­en-way GOP primary be­fore eas­ily de­feat­ing his Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent in the 2010 elec­tion. But he soon grew rest­less in Wash­ing­ton and wondered wheth­er be­ing a back-bench con­gress­man was im­port­ant enough to jus­ti­fy spend­ing so much time away from his wife and daugh­ters. That promp­ted him to seek the po­s­i­tion of policy chair­man in the 113th Con­gress, al­low­ing him to get off the side­lines and in­to the game.

“While I’m here, I want it to count. I don’t want to go home and tell my wife and my girls, “˜I was gone last week be­cause I had to do a press re­lease,’ “ Lank­ford said.

As policy chair­man, Lank­ford has the re­spons­ib­il­ity he wanted. But has he got­ten the res­ults? “No,” Lank­ford says quickly, shak­ing his head. “We still have a long way to go.”

Lank­ford is cur­rently con­sumed with ad­van­cing his le­gis­la­tion to re­move the threat of gov­ern­ment shut­down by ex­tend­ing cur­rent spend­ing levels if Con­gress fails to pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion. The pur­pose, Lank­ford he said, is to wean law­makers away from gov­ern­ing by CR and get them to fo­cus on passing year­long ap­pro­pri­ations bills. He’s lob­by­ing mem­bers in hopes of an early-Janu­ary vote.

Look­ing fur­ther down the line, Lank­ford men­tions poverty, edu­ca­tion, and en­ergy as the policy areas that he’d like the con­fer­ence to ex­plore. He’s also branch­ing out to as­sist in re­pair­ing the op­tics sur­round­ing his col­leagues, re­mind­ing fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans that they can’t win policy battles by “be­ing a con­fer­ence that’s loud.”

Bey­ond that, however, Lank­ford is mum. He won’t dis­cuss his fu­ture polit­ic­al as­pir­a­tions, be­cause he con­tends he doesn’t have any. The GOP’s long-term spe­cial­ist is, at least for now, fo­cused solely on the task at hand.

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