Ask Sen. Tom Harkin about his committee’s work this Congress and he’s ready to rattle off a key statistic.
“Fourteen bills. More than any other committee in the Congress. Fourteen bills signed into law.”
The retiring five-term senator — who hails from a vastly more productive era — might seem at first blush an unlikely candidate to break through in the most dysfunctional Congress ever. Harkin is an unabashed Midwestern liberal. But he’s also proved adept at reaching across the aisle on issues that don’t always make the front pages — such as the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization — a major overhaul heading to the president’s desk.
To hear Harkin tell it, much of the opportunity for success comes from having an old-school legislator as a partner.
“First of all, I have a good ranking member in Lamar Alexander. While we disagree on things, we’re able to work together and find common ground and get it done,” the Iowa Democrat said. Alexander, who became the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this Congress, learned the ropes under a fellow Tennessean, the late Majority Leader Howard Baker.
“That’s just it. We just work. It takes work. It takes time,” Harkin said last week, as leaders in both parties hailed the WIA.
It also takes discipline.
Harkin rejected the idea of adding an unemployment extension he and other Democrats supported to the re-authorization. “We worked five years on it and it’s a good bill and we are not going to let it get screwed up by anything,” Harkin said when the bill headed to the floor.
Alexander said the HELP committee has a history of focusing on areas where common ground between the parties can be achieved, including under the leadership of the previous chairman, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and I’ll give Sen. Harkin a good deal of the credit,” Alexander said. “Ideologically, we are very different, but we both know that our job is to get a result where we can. We have a huge jurisdiction. Sen. Kennedy used to say that we have about 40 percent of the jurisdiction of the Senate. And I think we’ve produced more legislation that has been reported to the floor and become law than any other committee.”
The House cleared the workforce investment agreement with an overwhelming 415-6 vote on July 9.
“The Workforce Investment Act had been stuck, literally, for 10 years. And finally, especially due to the work of Sen. Murray and Sen. Isakson, it passed,” Alexander said, lauding Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., for running point.
“I think what you saw was both of us sit down and work with our counterparts across the aisle to find common ground and achieve something that was really important to our country. And that is how we work,” Murray said.
Alexander also highlighted the work of longtime committee members Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who helped pass the Child Care Development Block Grant, which helps low-income families.
“I think part of the solution is that we look for areas where we can get a result, and we have good participation from other members of the committee. It’s not just a two-man show,” Alexander said.
Other HELP Committee measures that have become law this Congress include a reauthorization of the toll-free number for the poison control center and promoting access to epinephrine pens in schools. Harkin has more he wants to get done before retiring, but getting his education agenda to move could be quite a struggle. There’s more of a partisan divide on that issue than some others he’s handled.
“I’m working on the higher education bill. I’ll have it out in September. I don’t know know, maybe lame duck,” Harkin said. “Maybe.”
If he does, it might be testament to the relationships he’s built.
In 2011, he told CQ Roll Call that President Barack Obama didn’t seem to enjoy the give and take of the Senate. “If I only dealt with my Republican colleagues only on an issue basis, I probably never would get anywhere,” Harkin said then. “But I deal with them on a human basis, too.”
Alexander said he had particular issues with the Democratic view on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — also known as No Child Left Behind.
“Like on kindergarten through the 12th grade, my view of the Democratic bill is that it creates a national school board. We simply don’t agree so we had competing bills. On higher education, we may have some different opinions,” Alexander said. “But where we can agree we’ll work together.”
But Alexander also pointed out his recent effort with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to simplify the process of applying for and receiving federal financial aid to attend college. Their bill would eliminate the current 10-page Free Application for Federal Student Aid and replace it with a simple, two-question postcard.
At a meeting of the National Governors Association on July 11, Alexander stood up and showed the current student aid form to demonstrate its length.
“Because it’s a bipartisan effort, I think it has a much better chance of actually getting a result,” Alexander told CQ Roll Call. “So we are not just interested in making speeches, we are interested in getting a result and where we can we will and where we can’t, we’ll lay those items aside and go on to something else.”
Harkin’s also continuing to focus on early learning legislation, pushing for floor time.
But his other baby, the appropriations bill that funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, is stuck in a broader morass as Democrats seek to avoid contentious amendments.
Asked about the chances to consider that bill, Harkin said: “I have no idea. I really don’t know.”
“I think the CR that we have in September is going to be short-term, probably until December or something,” Harkin said. “And then after we come back in the lame duck we’ll work on a longer bill, and hopefully it will not be a CR, but it will actually be an omnibus.”
And naturally, one that includes his bill.
When Harkin retires at the end of this Congress, Murray — who has been bolstering her legislative bona fides this Congress — could be in position to take his dual gavels at HELP and the appropriations subcommittee that funds the programs HELP oversees. But she declined to say whether she would.
“All those questions will be answered at some point, I am not ready [to] yet.”