Rep. Tom Cole may have easily won re-election to the Oklahoma Congressional District 04 seat last week, but change for him is still coming.
The Democrats will take charge of Congress in the new year, and that means Republican Cole will likely lose his spot as chair of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. He was resigned to as much last Wednesday -- the day after he won re-election with 63 percent of the vote -- at an event announcing a series of education grants awarded to the University of Oklahoma.
"It was sort of mixed news last night," Cole said to the crowd. "For me, obviously a good night, personally, but I won't have my gavel too much longer."
The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education committee is the second-largest, Cole said, right behind national defense. Its jurisdiction covers about $180 billion.
It was the work of Cole and the members of the committee that led to OU's K20 Center getting the $68 million in grants for GEAR UP public school programs designed to increase educational opportunities and college readiness. That required bipartisan support, Cole said, and he used the story of the bill that provided the funding as a way to encourage similar cooperation in the future.
Cole said when he first became chair, the bill that funds the program hadn't passed out of the committee in six years. It was rife with conflict.
"It was considered a broken committee, a dysfunctional committee," Cole said. "Republicans and Democrats fought, and they didn't meet very often, four or five times a year."
So, Cole said the first thing he did was to triple the number of meetings. Then, he wanted to see a shift in what committee members focused on.
"I know where they're going to fight. They're going to fight about Obamacare, they're going to fight over abortion, they're going to fight over labor relations, a whole range of things," Cole said. "I want to listen to where they want to go, collectively on both sides of the aisle. For this thing to work, and for appropriations to work, it's always bi-partisan. You need 60 votes in the Senate, and frankly you need Democrat and Republican votes to move things across the floor."
The committee agreed to focus on biomedical research, programs for first-generation college students and programs to boost early childhood education. And funding for these areas has gone up each year for the last four years, Cole said.
"I find that if you can get them talking about things they like to do together, they sort of forgot about the things they wanted to fight about," he said.
This year, the large compromise bill that includes funding for these programs passed 361-61, Cole said.
"You had a big compromise, moved across the floor, almost identical numbers of Republicans and Democrats voting for the bill and Donald Trump signing it two days later, and the bill completed on time for the first time in 22 years," Cole said.
There was just one problem: it was passed on the same day as the hearings for then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
"One of my Democratic friends, who had been very helpful, came over stuck out her hand and said 'Mr. Chairman, good job. Too bad nobody in America knows that it happened.' And nobody did," Cole said.
But it was the perfect example of bipartisan work necessary to support such programs, the likes of which Oklahoma needs, Cole said. He said he stressed this to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut congresswoman and ranking Democrat who will likely become the committee's next chair.
"I told her 'Rosa, if you don't stay on this same path of doing biomedical research, first generation college kids and early childhood, I'm going to give you a really hard time,'" Cole said. "And she started laughing. But to be fair, she's been a partner in this each and every step of the way. So the real question for us and the future of this kind of program just depends on forgetting the things that divide you, working on the things that unite you and putting this thing through. If we do that, this will be the first of many kinds of successes."