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Tom Harkin Is Reflecting, but Trying Not to Stare

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Harkin is interviewed by CQ Roll Call in his Capitol Hill office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

At the end of an extended interview in his Senate office, Tom Harkin realized he had neglected to show off a prized possession — his father’s Works Progress Administration card.

It’s the role of government policies like the WPA that have guided the progressive Iowa Democrat’s career.

The Depression-era WPA was one of the progressive planks of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harkin is very much in the mold of the generation that followed FDR. But Harkin has shown a knack, not unlike the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, for working with Republicans when he needs to get a bill across the finish line.

Some of that, of course, depends on having a willing partner across the aisle, and on that front Harkin will say he’s been fortunate.

At a recent bill signing, President Barack Obama praised Harkin and his GOP counterpart, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for their Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee getting 21 measures to his desk this Congress.

“Well, that’s because you and Lamar are some pretty productive legislators who actually have focused on getting stuff done,” Obama said of Harkin’s recent successes.

Two deals with senior colleagues Harkin made early on set the course for his 30-year Senate career.

Harkin, who opted to retire rather than seek a sixth Senate term, agreed to join what was then the Education and Labor Committee, after the liberal lion Kennedy offered to create a disability policy subcommittee and hand Harkin wide latitude. That helped lead to the signature Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Those laws changed not only the way the public treated individuals with disabilities, Harkin said, but also the way many viewed the world.

“The way I describe the ADA generation is that kids that were born after that — or in your time coming of age — that their expectations changed. In the old days, if you had a disability and you were a child … you just were told not to expect a heck of a lot. Barriers were there: educational barriers, work barriers, transportation barriers, attitudinal barriers, some of which still exist. But, you just had lower expectations,” Harkin told CQ Roll Call. (One of the reporters conducting this interview was among the first beneficiaries of IDEA.)

“Kids that grew up with [Individualized Education Programs] and with access and support services and things like that are now saying, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want lowered expectations,’” Harkin said.

The bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, one of the HELP Committee’s big success stories this Congress, aims to improve on the transition from school to work for individuals with disabilities.

“We haven’t been preparing them to do that in the past,” Harkin said. “A lot of times the kids with IEPs, they get through, and they sort of just drop off the edge. They haven’t been given summer jobs, job coaching, internships. They haven’t been taken to colleges.”

Harkin took an interest in disability issues for a rather personal reason. His older brother Frank was deaf. Separate from the ADA, Harkin was a driving force behind closed captioning on residential TV sets. He also highlighted using his appropriations clout to establish the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders at the National Institues of Health in 1988.

“I just did it, and I got the support for it and set that up. It still exists today,” Harkin said.

Harkin could just do things like that because he has spent almost his entire career as the chairman or ranking member on the largest domestic policy subcommittee at Appropriations. As a freshman, Harkin cut a deal with the more senior Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., that enabled him to become chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Hollings called one evening, stressing that he was interested in the subcommittee overseeing the NIH because of a cancer center in South Carolina that needed help.

“I said, ‘Fritz, if I’m chairman of that subcommittee, I’m telling you, you’re in mother’s hands,’” Harkin said. “That’s how I got it, as a freshman senator. And [Arkansas Sen. Dale] Bumpers, who had been on the committee long before me, never had a subcommittee because he was on all the others, and there was always people ahead of him.”

Twenty-one Labor-HHS-Education bills have been enacted in 25 years, but the work’s gotten much more difficult. Harkin had hoped to get one last bill on the floor, but now his best prospect is to hitch a ride on a catch-all omnibus to fund the government for the rest of fiscal 2015.

Harkin would rather people just vote.

“We had abortion amendments in those days, and we had all kinds of stuff like that. So, who cares? Let people offer their amendments and you vote ‘em. That’s how the Hyde amendment came into being, by the way,” he said, referring to the prohibition on public funding of abortion.

“I’m really sorry to see the Appropriations Committee break down and not have bills come through. They say, ‘Well it takes too much time.’ Well, maybe we’ve got to get back to having all night sessions and weekend sessions and keeping people Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday,” Harkin said.

That’s a point that’s been raised by incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“Sen. McConnell and others have said … that he wants to get back to the regular order of bringing up appropriations bills. Well, I sure hope they do. If there’s one thing that the Constitution of the United States is crystal clear on: the power to tax and the power to spend lie with Congress, not the executive branch,” Harkin said.

Another way to get the Senate back in order? Earmarks.

Harkin highlighted his efforts spearheading two farm bills as the leader of the Agriculture Committee, including a healthy eating program for kids in schools. That, he said, wouldn’t have worked without congressionally directed spending.

“I could never have gotten that fresh fruit and vegetable program going without earmarks,” Harkin said. “Not only is it the grease that gets things working, but we’re able to do things that the big bureaucracy can’t do.”

“I started with four states, 100 schools, 25 schools in each state, and again kept it alive during the Bush years. But you know all of a sudden Arlen Specter, he wants it in Pennsylvania. So OK, we’ll appropriate a little bit more money. Thad Cochran wants it in Mississippi; we’ll appropriate a little bit more money for Mississippi,” Harkin said. “I finally take over in ’08, and then I nailed it yet again. … I got $1 billion for it.”

Specter was Harkin’s longtime counterpart at the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, and Cochran is in line to be chairman of the full Appropriations Committee in 2015.

Harkin had no shortage of other programs and projects for a Midwestern progressive to be proud of: farm bill energy and conservation programs, and the prevention and wellness provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

He said he had no regrets about retiring, despite the fact the seat he’s vacating will be taken over by Republican Joni Ernst next year.

He said his wife had come up with an apt expression as he goes through the process of reminiscing about his career.

“Keep this in mind: It’s all right to look back. Just don’t stare,” Harkin said.

Read also Tom Harkin — From Tiger Cages to Pinochet the second part of our sit-down exit interview.


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