A number of high-profile issues are facing Oklahomans today, such as farm regulations, manning aboard military bases, internet security and the Zika virus.
Following a ceremony aboard Altus Air Force Base on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Edmond), stopped by the Altus Times to share some Legislative matters that affect many in Altus.
Lankford has a unique perspective on many of these issues because he is on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chairman of the subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Air Force manning
A recent report from the Air Force Times suggests that manning levels in that service are getting very low. Retired Gen. Larry O. Spencer wrote that the Air Force is now the smallest it has been since before World War II. In terms of manpower, it is smaller than at any time since it was made into a separate and independent service in 1947.
According to Lankford, this is the result of the negotiated automatic sequestration.
“It was an historic agreement in 2011. The qualification the (Obama) administration put in was, we want to make sure that security spending was limited with everything else,” Lankford said. “So there are different priorities here — for those who try to say that national security is as important as the IRS and EPA funding, I just disagree. National defense is obviously one of those areas that has to be first.”
Lankford said that national security should be a priority and the military is a primary concern.
“There has been a big push, but the administration so far has said, if we increase spending on national defense, we have to increase spending on every other program,” Lankford said. “That puts us in a bad set of decisions on how much debt we can carry. There are lots of other things that people look at and say, those are good things to do if we can afford it, but the essential thing we have to do is national defense.”
Federal agency regulation
There has been concern, even fear at the state level that ranchers and farmers will be over regulated in the future and therefore upset the dynamics of their businesses. Some of that has been addressed in the state Legislature, but there are also efforts to protect these food producers at the national level.
“The administration wants to basically manage all water nationwide — that’s not their role,” Lankford said, adding that state and municipalities are better able to manage the water assets surrounding local communities.
“The courts have upheld that waters of the U.S. ruling now,” Lankford said. “We’re trying to get it killed, so that even if the courts allow it, the administration can’t do it.”
According to Lankford, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and the Food and Drug Administration are just some of the federal organizations with difficult regulations that have negative affects on rural America.
“We need to have a conversation about the EPA and herbicides,”Lankford said.
He advocates speeding up the approval process so that farmers can better protect their crops right away, in the current season.
The Department of Labor is pursuing a effort to give lower paid salary employees a raise or to have employers pay them more for overtime worked.
“They just laid down what we’re calling an ‘overtime law,’ ” Lankford said.
For any employee who makes more than $48,000 salary, there are restrictions to track hours and pay overtime.
“That sounds very nice from the administration,” Lankford said. “They’re saying we’re going to try to force every business in America to raise salaries up to $48,000.”
But it doesn’t cost the same across the country for the same standard of living in every location. Rural America may be able to afford a more modest income and the businesses may suffer as well.
“The problem with that is pretty obvious, if you’re in New York City and San Francisco, $48,000 doesn’t go very far, but if you’re in central time zone and mountain time zone, that’s not true.”
According to Lankford, there are business owners trying to anticipate their costs for the large numbers of salaried employees across the country who make less than $48,000.
“There’re businesses who can’t afford an $8,000 or $10,00 raise — they can’t afford to do that and still be operational,” Lankford said. “So it’s another one of those regulations in which somebody had good intentions, in D.C., but in real life terms, it doesn’t work.”
According to Lankford, the long approval process for prescription drug approval with the FDA has actually caused overpricing of the EpiPen because there were no other companies allowed to compete.
“A lot of people are talking about EpiPen right now and how they jacked up the price, but what they’re not talking about is the FDA has been slow to approve competitors to the EpiPen,” Lankford said. “So because the FDA is not completing its task and making it so hard to have competitors, they’re allowing a monopoly and that jacks up the price.”
Internet safety and security
Recently there have been reports of internet hacking into voting systems in Arizona and Illinois less than two months before the November elections.
What is often not reported, is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation actually discovered people hacking into those systems as part of the United States’ online defense efforts and worked with the organizations who own those systems to limit damage and find the culprits.
“In Illinois it was someone hacking in and stealing data,” Lankford said. “In the Arizona system, someone discovered that the old passwords were out there on the internet, and they found they could hack into the administrative structure of the voter system.”
Although every electronic device connected to the internet is vulnerable, changing passwords frequently and updating virus software regularly are the two best ways to protect oneself, Lankford said.
Zika virus efforts
Antivirus protection of a different kind could be available to fight the Zika virus within the next two years.
The Zika virus has been in the news for at least a year and there is even a monitoring effort aboard Altus Air Force Base because that is an area where world travellers return from overseas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC has a three-pronged approach to the problem: identifying the movement of the virus, mosquito eradication and developing a vaccine.
“They feel confident they can have a vaccine ready in 16 months — maybe less,” Lankford said. “They’re already doing some trials on the vaccine right now. In the meantime, the best way to try to deal with it, is to eradicate the mosquito population.”
The CDC is not going to send in teams of people to areas across the country, but the community of Altus and Jackson County would work with them here, Lankford said, revealing that he recently met with the head of the CDC who shed light on the effort and the virus itself.
“Zika is a very short-lived virus and most people who get it never even know they had it,” Lankford said. “The vast majority don’t even feel the affects of it. It’s not even flu-like for most people. They may feel a little flushed or a little tired for a day or two. It has no effect on the vast majority of people.”
But about 10 percent of expectant mothers infected with the Zika virus have very traumatic birth defects, Lankford said.
The latest effort to fight the Zika virus has been frustrating for some lawmakers.
According to Lankford, in December about $500 million was earmarked for infectious diseases. Congress gave the current administration the authority to apply that money quickly in case it was needed for an outbreak.
“In March of this year the administration took that money and moved it to the Green Climate Fund,” Lankford said.
According to the organizational website, The United Nations’ Green Climate Fund supports a worldwide effort to battle climate change especially for small, developing countries.
“Myself and multiple others were furious about that,” Lankford said. “We’re in the height of the Zika rise, they’re saying they need money (at the CDC), monies were allocated and they (the administration) moved it to the U.N. Green Climate Fund.”
Lankford said that the CDC is continuing its effort against the Zika virus, but the issue for future funding is whether to use some of $86 billion already earmarked for something else or to seek more money from the American taxpayer and go deeper into debt.
“So this has become a fiscal fight and in the meantime, the CDC is still doing its job. That hasn’t stopped. Some people have said we’re doing nothing on Zika. That’s not true,” Lankford said. “What we’re arguing over is, ‘are we adding more debt or using already allocated resources.’ I would say we should use money from other areas with lower priorities.”
Reach Eric Steinkopff at 580-482-1221, ext. 2072.