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George Lang is the opinion writer for Free Press. (Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

Leaders in all fields and at all levels will be judged for how they acted during the COVID-19 pandemic, for good and for bad.

On March 18, when Oklahoma’s Republican U.S. senators, James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, voted against the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, they displayed their most craven and narrow views of what is best for Oklahoma and the nation.

Both Inhofe and Lankford voted against the act because of the mandate requiring businesses, including small business owners, to provide sick leave or family leave to employers.

Lankford issued a tweet that “this bill has a new government mandate on small businesses, which was intended to help, but I fear it will make a bad situation worse for many Oklahoma businesses.”

He feared that result, which could also possibly impact donations from Oklahoma businesses to Lankford’s 2022 re-election effort. Lankford followed an amorphous “fear” about the future health of businesses instead of prioritizing the ongoing struggles of Oklahoma workers and their families in the age of COVID-19.


From George Lang, our lead opinion columnist

Meanwhile, Inhofe’s statement on his vote seemed to purposely confuse voters.

“Today, I voted for a proposal that would provide paid leave for all affected by the coronavirus, w/o risking our small businesses (which are 99% of businesses in OK). They are struggling to make ends meet and can’t afford to go for weeks/months waiting on reimbursement,” he wrote in a tweet.

This angered many voters as well as Inhofe’s 2020 Democratic challenger, Abby Broyles, who responded by posting, “No, Senator, you voted NO! Your time has passed. We can’t play political games with people’s lives. You denied help to people, and now you’re blatantly lying.”

The brutal truth is that both Lankford and Inhofe constituted 25 percent of the “no” votes on the measure, which was approved 90-8. Oklahoma’s senate delegation cares more about companies than they do about the people who work for those companies.

I understand the conservative argument in favor of Inhofe’s and Lankford’s votes, that if Oklahoma businesses are not supported, then there will be nowhere for employees to work.

But according to a 2019 Houston Chronicle report on small business expenditures, the “safe zone” for these companies’ payroll is 15 to 30 percent of gross revenue. As such, companies that follow this rule of thumb under normal conditions should be able to weather a situation like COVID-19 and still take care of their employees.

So many of these businesses simply dump their workforce during dark times.

If you really want to get into consumer theory, when the work sector is unable to support such businesses the entire economic system suffers, but Lankford and Inhofe are top-down in their view of economics, which means executives get first crack at the lifeboats.

Such attitudes are standard conservative fare under normal circumstances, but when these senators vote against the wellbeing of ordinary citizens during the worst global crisis in most people’s memories, those actions provide a window into some dark and cold souls.

We need our leaders to recognize and respond to the needs of everyday Oklahomans, especially in times of conspicuous strife.

We have no way of knowing just how many of our state’s residents will be medically impacted other than the trendlines from other countries who were impacted sooner than the U.S. and the forecasts of trained and knowledgeable epidemiologists, but everyone is being impacted financially, not just businesses.

In a tweet following the vote, JR Day of OkiePolls noted that the decisions, especially Inhofe’s, seemed “like an odd thing to stick your neck out on during an election year.

Inhofe isn’t necessarily taking on Titanic-type water yet, but he’s building a mountain of dynamite for @abbybroyles to clobber him with.”

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saw the writing on the wall. He saw that those who voted against an important bill for all Americans like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act could get the political drubbing they deserve.

McConnell told holdouts like Lankford and Inhofe to “gag and vote for it anyway.” In November, Inhofe might end up wishing he had gagged.

Last Updated March 19, 2020, 6:12 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor