In an era of change, Sen. James Inhofe is unapologetic about standing his ground.
“He’s not seen as a rebel around here by any means … but he’s an independent thinker,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of the Oklahoma Republican.
Inhofe, 76, is comfortable being a contrarian. In an interview last week, he recalled a time when one of his grandchildren “came up to me and said, ‘Pop-I, Why do you always do things that nobody else does?’ … and I said, ‘because nobody else does.’”
Case in point: As many of his GOP colleagues reversed long-held positions on an earmark ban last week, Inhofe proudly defended his support of the practice.
Republicans adopted an internal rules change to create a voluntary ban on requesting any kind of earmark — including transportation projects, tax cuts for particular industry sectors or other Congressionally directed funding.
The resolution even attracted the support of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) a day before the Conference voted on the ban. McConnell has long supported the practice.
But rather than align with his Conference, Inhofe threw himself into the fight. In floor speeches and interviews, Inhofe accused his colleagues of abandoning their constitutional responsibility to determine how federal money will be spent.
“This earmark debate is a great example” of Inhofe’s indifference to public opinion or peer pressure, Graham added.
And when some conservatives — such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Sen.-elect Rand Paul (Ky.) — suddenly balked at the idea of the Obama administration making all the decisions and suggested that some earmarks were not, in fact, earmarks, Inhofe pounced: “It’s almost as if they’re just saying we’re not going to call them earmarks ... [and] there’s just hypocrisy in the whole thing, and yet you’d be surprised how the people hated me. Frankly, I just thought I was dealing with it honestly,” he said after the fight.
Inhofe’s colleagues said he is motivated by principles, not politics: “He’s very passionate and he can be as partisan as the best of them. But deep down, he wants to help people,” a second Republican Senator said.
Even so, Inhofe has often found himself on the outside without many allies, and sometimes his position is of his own making. In 2003, for instance, Inhofe accused Sen. John McCain of trying to perpetrate “the biggest hoax” in the history of the Senate by insisting that global warming existed.
Inhofe, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, acknowledged that the two men have had intense disagreements over climate change and earmarks, a practice the Arizona Republican has long been opposed to. “I’ve disagreed with him on a lot of things in the Armed Services Committee,” Inhofe said.
But “every time I think about being angry, I think about the time he spent in Hanoi,” and realize that “we have two pretty strong-willed people with opposing views on a lot of things. But I’ve told him I love him,” Inhofe said.
While most Members look to avoid intraparty confrontation, Inhofe appears to welcome it, taking pride in often being the most hated man in the room.
He boasted of his role at international climate change talks last year in Copenhagen, in which he was vilified by virtually the entire world. “It was really quite enjoyable,” Inhofe said, recalling when he caused a commotion by announcing to attendees that the United States would never ratify a climate change deal.
“I always remember with all those people in the room, hundreds of them, and all the cameras. And they all had one thing in common: They all hated me. It’s kind of like the thing I’ve just gone through” with earmarks, Inhofe said.
Of his style, Inhofe said: “It started a long time ago,” pointing to his work in the 1970s as a state legislator. Then-Sen. Carl Curtis (R-Neb.) enlisted Inhofe to help round up states to ratify a balanced-budget amendment to try to force Congress to move on the issue.
Inhofe threw himself into the effort, coming within two states of ratification.
The endeavor won him special acclaim in conservative circles, and several years later conservative writer Anthony Harrigan wrote about the episode, describing how “way out in Oklahoma, there’s this guy that’s going to balance the federal budget. ... That is where the lone voice in the wilderness started,” Inhofe said proudly.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.