Two years ago, when I started my run for Congress, a friend asked me, “Why would you want to run for Congress? It is the worst job in the world. You spend half your life away from your family, people who do not even know you attack your motives, your family has no private life and you work hard to accomplish little.”
A year into the session, I can say that my friend was mostly right. He left out the late nights reading bills, legislative briefings and endless hours enjoying airport delays.
My wife and I have decided the best thing for our daughters is to keep them at home in Oklahoma City — in the schools we believe in and the church we love. The toughest day of my first year was when Cindy and the girls boarded that American Airlines jet at Reagan Airport to return home after my swearing-in last January. At that point, the certainty of spending so much time away from my daughters and bride became reality. Cindy is my best friend, and I married her 19 years ago to spend more time with her, not less. Flying away from my family to Washington, D.C., continues to be the hardest part of each week. Of course, I also miss living life with friends back home and enjoying just getting into my truck and driving anonymously to a fast-food restaurant for lunch.
But even given all of that, the work, frustration and aggravation do not dissuade me from the task that must be done and the reality that there are many Members of Congress who also fervently want to serve our nation and do the right thing — even when it is tough.
Coming into the political process from far outside of politics, it is interesting to interact with other Members of Congress and hear their perspectives on the state of our nation. I believe most people would be genuinely surprised to sit on the House floor and hear the stories and meet the real people who serve them.
There is a caricature of Members of Congress in the minds of many that does not really match reality. I have found that many of them are genuinely personable and they work very hard to see real progress in a place that measures success in inches rather than miles.
I also believe that almost any American could walk onto the House floor and find someone who thinks like them and represents their values. The House of Representatives is a very diverse body, full of people who often strenuously disagree on the best solutions to our national issues, but that is no different than in my own district at home.
In the past year, I have cast more than 900 votes, hosted 26 town hall meetings and led more than 1,000 meetings in Washington and Oklahoma combined, and my office has answered more than 27,000 emails and letters. While I could recount my schedule and the long days of committee work, constituent meetings and responding to emails, it is difficult to describe the emotion of looking into the eyes of a teacher, a nonprofit volunteer, a pastor or service member in Afghanistan to say “thank you,” knowing that I represent the 749,336 others who live in Oklahoma’s 5th district.
It is hard to describe the feeling the first time I walked through the double doors and inserted my voting card into the slot on the House floor to vote and when the weight of responsibility for our representative republic became reality to me. It is impossible to articulate how my heart is compelled to change the way our government works when I hear another story from someone who is struggling to get a simple answer to a hard question while navigating the federal bureaucratic maze. My first year has been frustrating, humbling, discouraging and intimidating — sometimes all at once. But it is a calling that I know I must do, despite all the challenges.
I am well-aware of the depth of our philosophical differences and the consequences to our nation if we do not confront our unsustainable debt and the broken process in Congress. I am also very aware that in America everyone enjoys yelling at referees and politicians in the middle of the game.
I can tell you, however, that after a year on the political playing field, I have a new respect for the men and women in black and white stripes.
Rep. James Lankford is a member of the Budget, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Oversight and Government Reform committees. He chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.