Sen. Jim Inhofe joined the historical ranks of powerful Oklahoma senators as he became the first Oklahoman to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday.
Inhofe’s chairmanship is part of “a long tradition of Oklahoma senators…who have made their way to these prestige committee chairmanships or into significant leadership positions,” said Keith Gaddie, a president’s associates presidential professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Arriving as Armed Services chair gives (Inhofe) the opportunity to shape policy and to shape programs and potentially represent defense interests in the state of Oklahoma,” Gaddie said. “We are one of the few states who have not suffered extensively under previous base closure rounds that have occurred, and we have a variety of military facilities here…that Inhofe is in a position to protect and promote.”
Other Oklahomans have previously chaired powerful Senate committees, namely Sen. Robert S. Kerr on the Rivers and Harbors Subcommittee of the Public Work Committee and the Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee and David Boren on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
But the United States’ defense spending is “probably the biggest discretionary pot of money the government spends,” meaning Inhofe could be in a position potentially more powerful than others depending on how he oversees those funds, said Michael Crespin, director and curator of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center.
In a Sept. 5 announcement on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Inhofe’s appointment, praising the senator for serving as acting chair of the committee while his predecessor John McCain underwent brain cancer treatment in Arizona this year.
“He possesses rich experience on the committee, including decades of work on behalf of American service members, as well as his own military service,” McConnell said of Inhofe.
Fellow Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford expressed trust in Inhofe’s leadership and ability in his new position in a Sept. 6 statement, calling Inhofe “the best person to step into this role.”
“Senator Inhofe’s experience and passion for the men and women in our Armed Forces have prepared him well to serve in this role,” Lankford said in the statement. “I’m grateful for his leadership, his love for Oklahoma, and his friendship. I know he will serve this committee, our nation, and our state well.”
While Inhofe, like McCain, is a military veteran and experienced committee member, replacing McCain will be a challenge for the senator, said Michael O’Hanlon, director of research on foreign policy at the Brookings Institute.
O’Hanlon said given McCain’s focused expertise in military and security policy, comparing any successor to McCain is “almost like comparing somebody to Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio.”
Inhofe told Gaylord News he wants to work on putting Armed Services subcommittees to better use from his new position, and that he won’t necessarily be as involved as his predecessor was in several aspects of the committee.
“My concern is going to be to accurately determine what the risk is out there, and if it’s a huge risk to America, and then how to best meet that risk through our authorization bills and our legislation,” Inhofe said.
Under Inhofe, the committee will also be pursuing the president’s proposed Space Force program, a sixth military branch that would oversee defense in space. Inhofe responded to questions about his personal position on Space Force only by noting that the cost of the program has yet to be determined.
As a representative of a state heavily dependent on military spending — Tinker Air Force Base, one of several military bases in the state, is one of Oklahoma’s largest employers — Inhofe’s full impact on Oklahoma from his new position isn’t yet clear. Inhofe said he’ll continue to look out for the state’s military interests.
Despite a Senate ban on earmarking funds, Inhofe could direct spending toward Oklahoma in less obvious ways, Crespin said. Crespin said Inhofe could suggest the military use a specific weapon or piece of equipment that is manufactured in Oklahoma, and that as chair, he’ll have influence over the opening and closure of military bases.
In the five rounds of Base Closure and Realignment Commissions (BRAC) since 1988, none of Oklahoma’s military installations have closed. Inhofe said those installations have not only stayed open, but have benefited from each BRAC process.
“It’s not political pressure, it’s community support — we have a lot of that in Oklahoma,” Inhofe said of keeping Oklahoma bases open. “So we’ll just keep that coming and we’ll keep doing a good job.”
Gaylord News is a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.