The Politics of Clout

by Jim Myers


Even though final votes are still months away from being cast and counted in the 2012 elections, Oklahoma is about to take a major hit in its congressional clout. That expected loss in power and influence will be felt mostly by northeastern counties: Those areas will be sending two new legislators—the winners of the races in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts—to join the state’s seven-man delegation.

It has been nearly two decades since Oklahoma elected more than one new member, with no previous experience in Washington, to Congress at the same time.

The year was 1994, and it was historic.

Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in four decades, giving them majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the state elected not two, but three new members to the House.

Individually, the three—Republicans Steve Largent, Tom Coburn, and J.C. Watts—brought their own star power to the party.

Traditionally, however, congressional clout takes years to accumulate. In the House, where agendas are set by leaders at the top, small states like Oklahoma are at a particular disadvantage. In addition to the two freshmen members the state will be sending to the new Congress, one incumbent—Republican Representative James Lankford—will be entering only his second term, if re-elected.

That means more than half of the state’s votes in the U.S. House will be cast by lawmakers with less than three years under their belt. On top of that inexperience, the state’s delegation no longer has members in top positions in congressional leadership.

Not that many years ago, leadership posts were held by Watts, who served as Chairman of the House Republican Conference, and by then-Sen. Don Nickles, who capped off his Republican leadership tenure in the Senate as Majority Whip, that house’s number 2 post.

Previously, Oklahoma’s storied congressional record included the likes of Democrat Carl Albert, the “Little Giant from Little Dixie,” who brought a decades-long political career to a close after several years in the top congressional post as House speakerin the 1970s, one of the most turbulent periods in U.S. history. And we sent Democrat Robert S. Kerr, who was dubbed “The Uncrowned King of the Senate,” and whose legacy includes the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

According to Republican Representative Tom Cole, the state’s current delegation understands the stakes in the new Congress.

“There is enormous change coming, and an enormous challenge in maintaining influence in Congress,’’ Cole said, adding he and other incumbents are not waiting for the elections to begin the work necessary for Oklahoma to retain as much clout as possible. “Believe me, we are talking among ourselves.’’

Democratic Representative Dan Boren triggered one of the changes in the delegation by choosing not to run for re-election this year after only four terms in the House. He sees his decision as part of a trend.

“You are not seeing people staying for 30 years,’’ Boren said. “The tenure of members is getting shorter and shorter.’’

Boren listed political polarization and money needed to run among the reasons for that trend. A report by the Congressional Research Service backs up that assessment. CRS stated that the average years of service in the U.S. House peaked at 10.3 years in 1991–1992 and has since dropped to 9.8 years.

Still, despite that trend and his own decision to cut his congressional career short, Boren hopes those who announce their plans to limit their congressional service during their campaigns to reconsider that approach. By going public with their intentions so early in their congressional ca- reers, he said, they tie their own hands when it comes to serving their constituents.

Boren concedes a small state like Oklahoma needs people who will serve long enough to get on important committees. On that front, perhaps no loss will be more significant next year to Oklahoma, specifically Tulsa and the rest of the 1st District, than the seat now held on the hugely influential House Energy and Commerce Committee by outgoing Republican Representative John Sullivan. In a stunning upset, Sullivan, who has served in Congress since early 2002, was defeated in the primary by Jim Bridenstine.

Terming next year as one of rebuilding for the Oklahoma delegation, Cole said a top goal will be to get the best committee assignments possible for its newest members.

“We have to compensate for being comparatively small,’’ he said, comparing apples to oranges. “California is always going to have a member on each of the important committees.’’

Despite the turnover, Cole thinks the state remains in good position. A veteran legislator whose career has included numerous leadership posts, both inside and outside government, he points to his own seat on the much-coveted House Appropriations Committee to make the point. Meanwhile, his fellow Republican Representative Frank Lucas currently serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a post he hopes to use to win approval of his proposals on farm and food stamp programs.

Lucas, the dean of the state’s House delegation, came to Congress in 1994, the same year Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, the senior member of the Oklahoma delegation, moved from the House—where he had served for almost eight years—to the Senate.

Inhofe currently holds the key post as the top Republican or ranking member of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, a panel he once again could lead if his party takes the majority next year.

And, even though it probably is good advice for all freshmen members of Congress to be seen but not heard, Lankford appears to have positioned himself well for his sophomore term. He was given the chairmanship of a House subcommittee in his first term. Cole predicted Lankford’s influence would only get bigger, describing him as a “rising star.”

“Oklahomans have picked good talent,’’ he said. “But it takes even talented people time to learn their way around Congress.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 19. Oct. 1, 2012.