Sen. James Lankford Interviews Heritage President Kay C. James

COMMENTARY Debt

Sen. James Lankford Interviews Heritage President Kay C. James

Jul 9th, 2021 26 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Kay C. James

President of The Heritage Foundation

James is a leader in government, academia and the conservative movement.

Sen. James Lankford: Well hey, this is Senator James Lankford. You've tuned into another episode of "The Breakdown." And now the breakdown is a time that we try to block off every month to be able to say, "How can we make you the smartest kid at the water cooler or the coolest scale on your Zoom call," to be able to know a little bit of facts and information about some of the things that are happening that people read about in the news, but don't know all the facts behind it. We spent a little bit of time talking about the facts behind it. You're tuning into this episode. Great. Glad you're here. If you're a regular on this, you know exactly how to find it, but if you want to make sure that you subscribe to it, you can go to any of the platforms that do podcasting. Spotify, iTunes. Any of those you can subscribe and it'll automatically be sent to you so you won't miss a single second of getting a chance to be able to have a conversation about the issues of the day to day.

Lankford: We are talking today with Kay Coles James. She is the president of the heritage foundation. Now, she's been a trustee with the heritage foundation for years. Has been the president of the heritage foundation since 2018, if I remember correctly. You're in the process of transitioning out and I've already announced to the whole world that you are retiring in the days ahead.

Kay Coles James: Oh, no, no, no.

Lankford: To do other things.

James: No, not retiring. I am fond of saying, given the the condition of our country and where we are, no one gets to retire. It's all hands on deck.

Lankford: All the time.

James: All the time.

Lankford: But stepping away from heritage and being thus spot where you're engaged in the issues of the day to day.

James: Yes, absolutely.

Lankford: So we're very grateful that you're here, grateful for your leadership, what you've done for the country for a very long time. The issues that you have been engaged in and your family has been so passionate about for so long. Thanks for continuing to be able to stay engaged in all those issues and for being such a great leader and writer. I love reading your stuff when you put it out. It's very thoughtful, it's very timely, but it actually drives down to the core issues of the day. So thanks for being engaged in that.

James: Oh, well thank you. I, as you know, who've been a long time admirer, respect you and the work that you do on behalf of your constituency for the entire country. So I am grateful.

Lankford: Thanks Kay. Thank you very much for that. Our staff talks often about we're going to do the right thing the right way and try to be able to help lead us in to say, "Let's do the right thing, but let's make sure it also matters how we do it as well."

James: That's right.

Lankford: And so we'll continue to be able to press through on that. Well, there there's a million things that we could talk about, and I'd love to be able to get a million things into our conversation. But I want to start kind of big picture and then to be able to work my way in.

Lankford: So quick story. I'm chatting with a house member. Who's a friend of mine that I know who is a Democrat from New York, and that may shock people in my state to know that I have a friend from New York who's a Democrat House member on the other side of the building, on the other party, all those things, and we interact often. He was telling me this past week when we were talking, he said, "I was doing a town hall in New York," and I won't tell you who it is or what part of New York. You've got a lot of options there. And he said, "I was doing a town hall recently and I started telling them a story about our friendship. And I would tell them that the two of us talk about issues and that you're always trying to explain to me how I'm wrong on things, and here's how we think in Oklahoma. And I'm always trying to tell you how you're wrong on things. And here's how we think in New York." And we went back and forth and he said, "I was trying to explain that to a town hall meeting," and he said, "The folks in New York, just were shaking their head thinking, "They think that way in Oklahoma?"

Lankford: And I smiled at him and I said, "That's the best example of federalism that I've heard in a long time." And you don't even know that you just drifted into that. I said to him, I said, "That's exactly why those of us who are conservatives are so passionate about saying, "You know what? Those New Yorkers are crazy people. They don't all think like we do in Oklahoma, and so we have things that we do in Oklahoma and the way that we do it in Oklahoma. And you have things that you like to do in New York. And that is unique to our nation and the way that we're set up where the federal government has a responsibility, the state has a responsibility, but it's very different. And when a lot of people from other countries look at the way that we do things, they're a little shocked by it to say, "You don't have one system for everywhere in the country?" We look at it and go sea to shining sea. We have some variables, we have something consistent, but we have some variables as well. Why is that such an important thing for us?

James: The founders were so wise in the form of government that they gave us. If you think about the difference between someone in what some people call the flyover states ...

Lankford: Right. People should land in our state.

James: They should land. They'd love it. They are very different. It's very different not only in New York and Oklahoma, but Virginia, Florida, California, Wyoming. And that's the beauty of our form of government. So what are the things that the federal government could do, should do, and what the federal government is best set up to do, and everything else should flow to the states.

James: I have often said April 15th is the great progressive holiday where they collect all the tax money, and at the end of the day, all I want the government to do for me is what's written in the constitution is their responsibilities. Deliver my mail, protect our borders. They're not doing a very good job of that right now.

Lankford: No, not at all.

James: But what are the things that the local government should do like education? So for Americans, we have always believed that the government that governs best is the government that's closest to the people. And so there has always been this constant tension between the federal government and state government and what are the rights that belong to each. And I think at this moment in our country's history, we really need to be the watchman upon the walls as this whole thing is being debated. Because we're going to lose a great deal of our freedom if we give it up to a large federal government with centralized powers. And most Americans, I think, understand that, but I think we need to reemphasize that so that they can understand why we're fighting some of the battles that we're fighting right now.

James: Perfect example is what we're going through on voting rights. At the end of the day, do you really want the opportunity for the federal takeover of elections. The implications of that are staggering and very troubling for me. There's something to be said for those elections to be controlled by the states. Less opportunity for people to commit fraud and abuse. When you have one centralized power with making all of the rules, imagine the mischief that can happen in that particular situation. So I think we have to fight back and fight back hard right now for our constitutional form of government, which gives limited power to the federal government, and most of the power remains at the state level.

Lankford: It has been an enormous battle in the Senate. The house has already voted to be able to take away all that. The Senate, ongoing battle, and to be able to continue to be able to push back against what's called S1, or a lot of people still know it as HR1, the house bill, to be able to say is the federal government righteous in the states or wrong? That's really what this whole thing is all about, is to say, "Those that are up in Washington, DC, they know better, they think better, they're more righteous and holy than the people that are in the states. The states will try to do all sorts of mischief and terrible things, and the federal government's really the right one to be able to do it. And what I describe as S1's voting bill is to say it makes voting easy, cheating easy, and verifying election impossible. Because it takes away all voter protections on this. But the biggest part of it is that it does federalize everything. It's the reverse of our normal system.

James: It's the reverse of what we know to be good government.

Lankford: So let me ask an interesting question. I have black friends in Oklahoma that would say, "Well, hold on. On voting, that's an area where we want the federal government to do this," because if they go back to the 1960s and before, and all the Jim Crow laws, they would say it was the federal government. It was federal courts, not state courts that actually protected our rights. State courts were limiting our rights in many areas. Federal courts actually stepped in and said, "No, we're going to honor every system." So their statement to me is, "We trust the federal courts a lot more than we do on state courts." How do you answer that?

James: I understand that position. I lived through in my life, the entire civil rights era. And I recognize that when we were trying to integrate schools in the south and when we were fighting for voting rights and other civil rights, that indeed we had to appeal to a federal government in order to step in because of the state's inability to enact accurate and legislation at the state level. Having said that, we should never be in that place. And I do believe that with the opportunity for appeals, with the opportunity for bringing our concerns forward to our legislators and their ability to speak into that, there are other ways and mechanisms that we can do that instead of turning over all of those rights to the federal government. And if it's that easy to turn all of our rights over to the federal government, it's also that easy for them to take it away. I would rather them to have to fight 50 different states in order to do that, than do it in one fell swoop with the federal government.

James: Centralized power, strong federal government power, may have some appeal in some situations. But overall as a form of government, it's very, very dangerous.

Lankford: Yeah, benevolent dictatorships usually only last one generation.

James: That's right.

Lankford: And then it ends up not being so benevolent at that point.

James: No, well said.

Lankford: And we've seen that with the gathering of power. The first person you're like, "Okay, well they'll be smart with it." After that, it gets much tougher.

Lankford: You have done a lot of writing and a lot of engagement on this whole issue of woke capitalism and about trying to be able to limit people's speech or to say, "No, you're out." We've seen it in university settings. It's really, I think, where we saw it first, was where it really rose up in university settings in this modern day. And wokeness as had a lot of different terms. And it's gone on a very long time. But to the modern time right now, on universities and pushing out professors and isolating students and groups, and you don't count and you don't count and you can't speak, has now shifted into capitalism. We won't advertise with you, we won't count you in. It's really had a pretty dramatic effect in even how people have dialogue, I've noticed. I'm at a restaurant talking to somebody and literally people will stop and go, "I can't talk about this anymore." And it's very interesting to me how it's limiting people's interactions just as people. You've got good counsel on that. And you've done a lot of writing and thinking about that.

James: Well, as a black conservative evangelical pro-life Republican, I might as well confess to that as well, for many, many years what most people are experiencing now, I have experienced my entire life. I have been run off of college campuses, had to be escorted off by police when I was out there defending the right to life. So I know what that's like. I know what I had to do to learn to cope with that. And so part of what I want to do right now is to encourage other people. Because the only thing that beats a is the truth, and it is going to require courage of all of us. And when I see people who cave to the woke culture and woke capitalism, it is usually because of a lack of courage. It is usually because they don't want to go through the pain of what it's like to be called names, to have people appear outside your home and demonstrate. To have a meal interrupted. But at the end of the day, there's a speech that I love to give. And I researched it. And quite frankly, the person who gave me the most encouragement in this area was not Rush Limbaugh, but his father.

Lankford: Oh that's interesting.

James: His father did a piece on the founders of this country and what they had to sacrifice for Liberty and freedom, and to found this nation. And the price that they paid was unbelievable. They lost their fortunes. Many of them lost their lives. Their families were destroyed. And when you read the actual stories of those individuals and you realize what's being asked of us today, it's nothing. It's nothing. But I am convinced that the same character traits, the same motivations and principles that were necessary for the founding of this nation are going to be required to sustain it.

James: Ronald Reagan said many, many important and quotable things, but one of the things that he said was that freedom isn't passed on in the bloodstream. It has to be fought for by each generation. And I sat back and I thought about that. And I went, oh my word, rather than thinking in terms of what is the battle that we're going to fight, and when there is no one and done. So we have to be raising up our children and a generation that understands that they have to fight every generation for the things that are sacred to us. For our freedom, for our Liberty. And so as a result of that, how are we raising a generation? And I think with the parenting that we do, as we teach our kids character, as we teach them the importance of truth, as we teach them the founding principles, as we tell them how they need to be courageous, that our kids will be strong enough for the battle that lies ahead, that every generation has to fight.

James: And so cancel culture is ... We've got new names for it, but by the same token, we've always had to have patriots who were willing to pay the price. And the main thing we need is thick skin, courage to be truth tellers, to be people that recognize that this is something worth fighting for, and being committed to not raising snowflakes, who cannot be engaged in the battle. Some of us never have the opportunity to experience that. From the moment I opened my mouth and said I was pro-life and conservative as an African-American, I had a target. And it's always been there.

Lankford: But you are the happy warrior. You are. All the conflicts, all the fight as you put it, hasn't made you bitter, hasn't made you angry. It's kept you engaged, and you've actually, instead of taking it on a defensive posture, you've turned around and said, "I need more people in the battle with me on this," because you're so convinced this is right. Which by the way, I think you're right as well. But you're so convinced you're right you're drawing people in to say, "Come stand with me on this one," rather than hunkering down.

James: Well first of all, in one of my books, one of the titles of a chapter is The Same Sun That Hardens Clay Softens Butter. And so we have a decision to make. Are we going to allow the battles that we engage us in to make us hard and brittle and bitter and angry, or are we going to allow them to soften our hearts and give us the opportunity to see other people's perspectives? And the one thing that I do know is that the conservative movement needs to grow.

James: One of the questions I would ask heritage interns on occasion is how many of you want to do this internship so that you can learn everything you need to know to go out and annihilate the enemy? And a few brave hands would raise. They'd raise their hands and I'd say, "I'm so sorry, you're in the wrong program. Because I want you here to learn the research, the data, the analysis with your winsome ways to win people over to our perspective, because we have to grow." If we don't grow with attracting youth and minorities and women, those are the three demographics that we know we need to speak to, our movement will shrink and die. And the good news is that I believe that the message that we share as conservatives are messages that would resonate with all of those constituencies. But we must be present to win. And we must be tough in the battle. And I think with that sort of attitude about it, and we should all be happy warriors and embrace people and pull them into our movement.

Lankford: Yeah. I saw something you wrote not long ago on the same issue. The cancel culture and woke ... And one of the challenges that you put before people in this particular article was, when you're being canceled, don't reciprocate. You're just canceling back. Your goal is not to be as angry as they are to go respond to that. It's to be able to fight false with fact, but not to become that.

James: Absolutely. And Senator, quite frankly, one of my big concerns right now is that I'm seeing the cancel culture creep into the conservative movement, where we are canceling each other. Because there are nuances and differences of opinion on strategy, and we can't even have a conversation or a debate about what's the right strategy or what's the best way to get this done, and so the cancel culture is not just between left and right now, but it is even within our own movement. And we can't win with that. We can't cancel anybody out. We need everyone on deck to get this done.

Lankford: Yeah. So there's this little thing called national debt.

James: Oh my gosh.

Lankford: I don't know if you've heard about that before.

James: Yeah I have.

Lankford: Yep. Heritage spends a lot of time talking about this. I've spent a long time talking about this. It is an enormous challenge with what's happening economically right now. If we rewind back to February of this year, you were laying this challenge out, I was laying this challenge out. Even president Obama's economic advisors were shouting from the housetops to our Democrat colleagues, "Do not pass this big COVID bill. It will cause inflation. It will cause a decrease in labor across the country. It will cause a big issue." It's not hard to be able to do the basic formula. If you have an increase in dollars in a decrease in labor, you have an increase in inflation. That's what that equals, every time. And that's exactly what they set out in March. And what we've seen, this decrease in labor across the country but an increase in dollars around the country, so there's more demand for everything. And it's really damaging our economy, and people are paying more at the gas pump, they're paying more for housing, they're paying more for cars, they're paying more for groceries. All the prices are rising up, and a lot of people are getting nervous about it at the same time that we have this rapidly accelerating national debt. It's a bad formula to be able to say the least.

James: Well, first of all, again, thank you for standing firm on that. Because some of the biggest debates and arguments that we've had have been with some of our ... In our own party who have continued to grow our national debt. First of all, remember debt means it has to be paid back. So can we start there? Every penny we borrow has to be paid back. I love my grandchildren and my hopefully great grandchildren enough that I don't want to leave that burden in their laps. What does it mean for the future of this country, with that kind of debt over our heads? I can tell you the date and the hour that my husband and I became debt-free about 15 years ago. No mortgage, no car payments, no credit card payments. It is the best feeling in the world. I cannot imagine a nation that owes that much money, and the dark cloud that puts over us as a people and our inability to be creative and innovative and do other things that we can't do because the money has to come from somewhere.

James: Somehow we've got to get the American people to understand it just isn't paper that you churn out. To understand that when you say, "Yes, let's give everyone this big COVID stimulus check. That money comes from somewhere." When you say free tuition for everyone, where is that coming from? How does that impact the national debt? Why in the world would you embrace a fiscal policy that you wouldn't implement in your own home? To me, it's practical, it makes sense, but somehow we have got to articulate that in a way that the American people can really grasp the implications of what it means to be a debt ridden nation. Thank you for standing firm on that.

Lankford: We'll continue to be able to push on that. It's very difficult because now we're so far in debt that there are so many people here in Washington, DC, that will say, "Well, we're so far in debt. I just don't think we're going to catch up. So we're just going to manage the debt that we have and we'll continue to be able to add to it." I think that's a really, really bad formula for [crosstalk 00:23:02].

James: It's bad and it's dangerous.

Lankford: It's apathetic, is what it is, because we do have to be able to take this on. There's no way to do it in a year. There's no way to even do it in 10 years. This is a jumbo, jumbo mortgage that we're dealing with that's going to be a generation to be able to whittle away. But we have to be able to make that shift. It's entirely appropriate to be able to lean in and to say, "How do we get us to balanced first?" That's the deficit portion of it. How do we have no deficit, no more additions to our debt? And then how do we start chipping away at the debt little by little because as you mentioned, everything that we borrow, we have to pay. And each piece of that, we have to pay interest on every single year, our interest payments around $325 billion a year. That's money that can't go to roads, can't go to national defense, it can't go to the border. We could talk about for a long time. It can't go to any of those things because we're paying it just in interest payments. And those have to go out first. So the bigger that debt gets, the bigger the interest gets, the less we can do on other things, and it will guarantee a tax increase in the future.

James: And let me tell you. Most politicians, if they can kick the can down the road, they will, and leave it for future generations to figure out. And the only way we're going to get them to stop doing that is when the American people rise up and say enough is enough. When at the local level, during campaigns and elections, people talk about the national debt. People hold them accountable. People say, "If you are elected, tell me what you're going to do on this issue," and then hold them accountable.

Lankford: Yeah, it was the number one issue last year I got. Once we got through the initial pandemic and we started actually talking to folks about it, the number one question I got all over the state of Oklahoma is, "Where's all this money coming from?" Because there was this sense that there's a lot of money. Now I understand it's a rainy day last year. Take the whole year, it's a rainy day. It's not raining the same way at this point. And even last year I was saying to people, we needed to lay out a program to say, "Yes, this is going to carry us through the economy. Everybody's got to talk about how we're going to pay this back."

James: Can I add one other factor in there?

Lankford: Sure.

James: And that is yes, it was a large sum of money. But one of the things that bothered me more than anything was the accountability on how that money was going to be spent. And there was little accountability. So we were throwing huge dollar amounts going to organizations and institutions and people and state governments that were using it to bail them out of bad decisions that they've made in the past. So not only were we spending huge amounts of money, but we were not holding people accountable for how that money was being spent. There's just nothing fiscally responsible about that.

Lankford: Yeah. Welcome to Washington, as you know well, because you track these issues for a very long time. Thanks for staying engaged, thanks for committing to not retiring, and to continue to be able to stay engaged in this conversation. Really do look forward to getting a chance to see what the next hill is you're going to climb and to be able to take on.

Lankford: Tell me briefly a little bit about, for folks that don't know about, I do, because it's been around for a long time. What's the Heritage Foundation? What even is that?

James: I was talking to senior staff about this this morning, how exciting it is to be a part of an institution whose mission it is to provide the research, the data, and the analysis to fuel the entire conservative movement. We are here to serve the movement. And so the scary, smart people that are in that building are putting out the intellectual firepower, the ideas, the research, the data, and the analysis in order for people on Capitol Hill like you to have everything you need to fight the battles that you fight. But we're also a newspaper, digitally. We have The Daily Signal. We reach more than two million people every day with news they can trust. We train more young conservative leaders than any other institution in Washington through our young leaders program and our intern program. We consult with people at the federal, state, and local level on legislation and on ideas for conservative governance. We are there to serve this country, and I believe ... I like to think of the Heritage Foundation as the embassy of freedom. So if you want to know what it looks like to have great policy, we're there for that on free markets, on a strong national defense, on maintaining the American debt ceiling, on human flourishing. So we're there for all of those reasons, and there to serve.

Lankford: That's great. So you have to be a $10,000 donor to get this information or can you just go get it for free?

James: Oh no you don't. You can go get it for free.

Lankford: What's the best way for them to get it?

James: Heritage.org.

Lankford: Go get it. Sign up for the signal to get a chance to be able to get ongoing information.

James: Absolutely.

Lankford: Get access to all that research. When you got questions, it's a great place to be able to go and research and say, "What have other people thought about this before?"

James: That's right.

Lankford: And so thanks for your engagement and thanks for continuing to be able to stand up for basic freedom for everybody, every neighborhood, every background across the country. So thanks very much for that and what you're doing. And for those of you that are tuning in, thanks for getting a chance to be able to be in the dialogue and the conversation. This is a dialogue that's ongoing, and you know that full well. You can go to our website, lankford.senate.gov and I get a chance to be able to shoot us an email, or to be able to contact our office, talk to our team and to be able pass the message onto me. But join in the dialogue. There's four million of us as Oklahomans, There's a whole bunch of us across the nation that are all in this ongoing dialogue about where are we headed as a nation? What's the best way to be able to serve people? How can we honor each other, and to be able to honor our basic founding principles of freedom for every single person and opportunity for every single person. That's a good gift for us to be able to pass on to the next generation, but it's a good gift for us to continue to talk about in this generation as well.

Lankford: So God bless you. Thanks for joining in the dialogue. I look forward to getting a chance to connect with you again, in the future on The Breakdown