Tom Harkin's legacy: links and discussion thread

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin’s been giving a lot of interviews lately as he wraps up a 40-year career in Congress this month. I’ve posted some of the newsworthy excerpts after the jump, along with the full text of Senator Chuck Grassley’s widely-praised tribute to his colleague on the Senate floor.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. UPDATE: James Q. Lynch’s feature for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on “The Harkin Legacy” is a good read.  

Clearly, Harkin will be remembered first and foremost as the architect of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Remarkably, he got that legislation through the Senate during his first term. He has said that it changed the country “even more than I’d imagined in my wildest dreams,” and he recently received the lifetime achievement award from the American Association of People with Disabilities. But Harkin told the Des Moines Register editors this week,

One of his biggest regrets is that the United States hasn’t joined more than 150 countries to approve the United Nations’ treaty on rights for people with disabilities.

Harkin blamed then-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for saying the treaty would prevent home-schooling. “Goofy stuff,” Harkin said. “But he got them all ginned up.”

Harkin said on the day of the vote, supporters thought they had enough. But “in the Republican caucus that day, …Ted Cruz, who was not a senator but had just been elected, came in and said to the caucus that this United Nations treaty, you vote for that and the tea party is going to count that as a negative vote. … It just scared the bejesus out of people. I didn’t know that until later on. So we lost it by six votes.”

Although a clause was added to make it clear the treaty would not block parents from home-schooling, critics had a “sovereignty” argument, he said.

Harkin added: “There’s a few in the black helicopter crowd that no matter what you say, if it has anything to do with the U.N., it’s bad. They ain’t going to vote for anything, period.”

Senator Chuck Grassley voted against ratifying that treaty, by the way.

Speaking of regrets, last week Harkin set off an uproar in Washington last week with these comments to Alexander Bolton of The Hill:

He wonders in hindsight whether the law [2010 Affordable Care Act] was made overly complicated to satisfy the political concerns of a few Democratic centrists who have since left Congress.

“We had the power to do it in a way that would have simplified healthcare, made it more efficient and made it less costly and we didn’t do it,” Harkin told The Hill. “So I look back and say we should have either done it the correct way or not done anything at all.

“What we did is we muddled through and we got a system that is complex, convoluted, needs probably some corrections and still rewards the insurance companies extensively,” he added.

Harkin said the sweeping healthcare reform bill included important reforms [….[ He also lauded the law’s focus on preventing disease by encouraging healthy habits […].

But he believes the nation might have been better off if Democrats didn’t bow to political pressure and settle for a policy solution he views as inferior to government-provided health insurance.

“All that’s good. All the prevention stuff is good but it’s just really complicated. It doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said of the Affordable Care Act.  […]

“We had the votes in ’09. We had a huge majority in the House, we had 60 votes in the Senate,” he said.

He believes Congress should have enacted “single-payer right from the get-go or at least put a public option would have simplified a lot.”

“We had the votes to do that and we blew it,” he said.

I remember Harkin emphatically promising Democratic audiences in 2009 that there would be a public option in the health care reform bill. Unfortunately, he misjudged his colleagues. Not only didn’t Democrats have the votes for a single-payer system, they didn’t even have the votes for a public option such as a Medicare buy-in, thanks to bad actors like Senators Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus. Retiring House Democrat Henry Waxman commented this week, “What Sen. Harkin would have liked might have been better, but it couldn’t have passed,” Waxman said.

I don’t think Harkin really believes Democrats would have been better off not passing any health care reform bill in 2010. Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s editorial board this week, he named the Affordable Care Act as his third-greatest accomplishment, after the Americans with Disabilities Act and work on various farm bills as a leading member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Still, it must be frustrating for many Democrats (who have suffered through two Republican wave elections since the health care reform passed) to hear someone of Harkin’s stature suggesting maybe the law wasn’t worth passing.

Indian human rights activist Kailash Satyarthi will receive the Nobel Peace Prize this week in Norway. I didn’t realize that Harkin had repeatedly nominated Satyarthi for the honor:

Kailash Satyarthi, a human rights activist from India, will be recognized for rescuing more than 78,000 children from forced labor and developing a successful model for caring for them, educating them and reuniting them with their families, Harkin said.

Harkin first met Satyarthi in 1991 and has worked with him since, visiting his ashram in 1999. Satyarthi kept up rescue raids despite suffering numerous physical attacks, including one beating that “damn near killed him,” Harkin said. […]

In the mid-2000s, Harkin helped secure enrollment for Satyarthi’s daughter at the University of Iowa. Harkin said the Indian man was worried about sending her to school in India because of death threats against himself and his family. Harkin told him he just happened to know someone on the board that oversees Iowa’s public universities: his wife. Asmita Satyarthi graduated in 2008.

Last weekend, Harkin was the guest on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program. You can watch the video or read the full transcript here. He claimed not to be second-guessing his decision to retire.

Well, I wouldn’t say second-guessing, Kay, but kind of a feeling of yeah I’m going to miss it, sure, because I enjoy this. I enjoy being a Senator. I love the job. I love the Senate. People say oh the Senate is broken and all that. It’s dented a little bit, banged up a little bit but still functional. And I have been working on the, obviously the appropriations bill, the Omnibus Bill, I hope that we’ll have next week. But, again, it’s time for me to move on. It’s time for me to retire. It’s time for younger people and new people to come in.

I would guess that at least 90 percent of Iowa Democrats share my view that we needed another term from Harkin. 2014 was a terrible year to be defending an open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa.

Asked about mistakes Representative Bruce Braley made in his losing Senate campaign against Joni Ernst, Harkin replied,

Harkin: As a matter of fact, Bruce just said to me the other day, he texted me and said, see you in the unemployment line. So, look, I talked a lot with Bruce about the campaign. Look, he’s been a great Congressman, he has contributed a lot and I thought he ran a good campaign. A couple of mistakes were made. We all know about that. But, look, this was a wave. I’ve seen waves. I came in on a wave in 1974, the Watergate wave. And so I’ve seen these waves move back and forth. And this was just one of those years. And plus I will give credit where credit is due, Joni Ernst ran a great campaign. In fact, I’ve said before I don’t know who did her ads and all that but is he available for the democrats to use in the future, or she, whoever that is? So she ran a really good campaign. And this national wave that was moving, a couple of mistakes made in the Braley campaign and that was it. But my advice to him was always just, you know, you grew up in Brooklyn, Iowa, you’re from a small town, your mother has been a school teacher in eight decades and your family, you’re Iowa through and through, let people know you’re an Iowan. That is who you are.

Lynch: Would he have been better off if he had had a primary campaign and go through that?

Harkin: That’s a possibility, James, that’s a possibility that perhaps a primary and working things out and stuff, that’s Monday morning quarterbacking. You know, heck I can do it, I can Monday morning quarterback as good as you can, James.

I largely agree that this was a wave election. Democratic candidates who were better-positioned going into the election and ran better campaigns lost several Senate races. Had Braley made fewer mistakes, he would have just lost by a smaller margin.

I don’t think the lack of a primary was what hurt Braley. No one but former Governor Tom Vilsack was in any kind of position to challenge Braley for the Senate seat. Not only did Braley have experience in Congress, he was known to be Harkin’s protege. To all appearances, Vilsack was not interested in giving up his post as U.S. secretary of agriculture to run for Senate this year. I do think Vilsack would have been better positioned to beat Ernst, because Republicans would not have been able to define him as a largely unknown candidate to a statewide audience.

Harkin told the “Iowa Press” panel that he is not recruiting the next Iowa Democratic Party chair. After taking a vacation, he plans to focus on the non-partisan work of the new Harkin Institute at Drake University. (That institute was supposed to be at Iowa State University, Harkin’s alma mater, but those plans blew up over some stupid decisions by ISU leaders.) Former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus will chair the Harkin Institute.

Harkin is considering some kind of Democratic showcase for candidates to continue the tradition of his “steak fry,” but he emphasized that such an event would have no connection to the non-profit institute at Drake.

Harkin did recently offer some strategy advice to Democrats:

“We’ve got to get younger people in. We’ve got to be focusd on our messaging and what we really stand for.”

Harkin described his experience as a congressman in the 1970s, when a series of elections in which more Democrats were elected to lower offices across his district made his campaigns easier.

“We’ve got to do a better job, we Democrats, of focusing on local offices and getting people to understand how important and how vital they are and how important they are to people’s lives,” he said.

I agree with the idea of getting good candidates to run for local offices. The problem is, since the 1970s, Democrats have been decimated in rural areas, not just in Iowa but all over the country.

When asked on “Iowa Press” about  his relationship with Grassley, Harkin replied,

I think we have a great working relationship. In fact, I was very touched on my birthday, on November 19th, just a few weeks ago Senator Grassley got on the floor and gave a wonderful tribute to me and I had known that he was coming so I went to the floor and then we had a little exchange back and forth and it was really heartfelt. We’ve had a great relationship. And, again, it just shows that people with different philosophies and different views of society and the role of government can actually work together. We may vote different but when it comes to Iowa there’s not much daylight between us.

Here is the floor statement (as prepared) by Senator Chuck Grassley, delivered on November 19:

Mr. President, I rise today to celebrate the 75th birthday of my friend and long-time colleague from our home state of Iowa, Tom Harkin.  As you know, Mr. President, Senator Harkin will be retiring from public office in just a few weeks.

At the end of the 113th Congress, Senator Harkin will close a chapter on public service that spans more than a half-century, including four decades in Congress.  He served 27 years in the United States Navy and U.S. Naval Reserves. Ten years in the U.S. House of Representatives. And 30 years here in the United States Senate.

That’s a remarkable and distinguished record of public service.

After 40 years of representing Iowans in Congress, Tom soon will leave behind the halls of the U.S. Capitol. He also will leave behind a legacy of fiery floor speeches, passionately delivered on behalf of individuals with disabilities. For Iowa farmers. For the elderly. For child laborers. And for the many causes he championed, such as early childhood education, nutrition and wellness, conservation, renewable energy and the environment.

Through the years, Tom and I have served side-by-side in Washington for the good of our home state. For three terms, we worked together in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was here our shared commitment to give Rural America a voice at the policymaking tables was sown. And for the many years we have worked together on the Senate Agriculture Committee, we looked out for the millions of Americans who choose to work and earn a living in Rural America. We worked together to advocate for rural infrastructure and investment and access to health care, housing, technology and transportation.

For the last three decades we have served alongside one another in the United States Senate, an institution we hold near and dear to our hearts. Although some of our silver-tongued critics over the years may have ascribed Tom’s views as those of a bleeding heart liberal or mischaracterized mine as that of a cold-hearted conservative, we both know that our hearts have always been in the right place. Neither of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouths. And we learned early on to appreciate the work ethic of our parents and grandparents. Each of us raised our families with the hopes that our children and grandchildren would achieve the promise of America’s prosperity and grow up to enjoy the pursuit of happiness. As Iowa’s U.S. Senators, we have worked to keep alive that dream for hardworking Iowa families.

Now, it’s true we have vastly different views on the government’s influence on America’s ladder of opportunity. However, we whole-heartedly agree that it is an honor and a privilege to serve the people of Iowa. For some reason, our respective re-elections every six years have confounded political observers. Many couldn’t seem to square the notion that Iowans would continue to elect two U.S. Senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum for the last three decades.  

Mr. President, it is widely understood that Iowans aren’t casual political observers. Our electorate takes pride in retail politicking and its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. We certainly have given Iowa voters a night-and-day choice.

So while we may not see eye to eye on politics and ideology, we do see eye to eye when it came to working for Iowa’s best interests.  Although our voting records may reflect night and day positions on public policy, you wouldn’t see the light of day between us when we worked together on matters that matter most to Iowa, including natural disasters, such as the 2008 floods. Iowa farmers and agriculture, notably recovering from the farm crisis. Renewable energy and rural infrastructure. We also enjoy welcoming economic development leaders and constituents to the nation’s capital. Between the Siouxland Steak Dinner here in Washington and the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, there’s no doubt Tom will miss staking out Iowans to discuss politics and policy.

However, I have no doubt my home state colleague will continue to champion the causes for which he has devoted a lifetime of service.

To his credit, Tom’s legacy reflects the priorities he set out to achieve decades ago: to make a difference for those on the down side of advantage.

Mr. President, Barbara and I extend our warmest wishes to Tom and Ruth, and the entire Harkin family.  As you start life’s next chapter, may you enjoy the blessings of hearth and home, health and happiness.  Although Tom is retiring from public office, I’m confident he is not retiring from serving the public interest.

From one constituent to another, I thank you for a lifetime of public service. And I wish you good luck and Godspeed.

  • Harkin

    Harkin’s legacy is about working with Mike Enzi, Lamar Alexander on common sense education reforms.  All of the press that you ever hear about the farm bill is negative, but he and Saxby Chambliss were always pragmatic and logical about most provisions within it.

    He always seemed to be kind and decent to Arlen Specter as well, even when Arlen had people on all sides shunning him.

    Contrary to the way the media portrayed him at times, he wasn’t a guy that was constantly punishing people for their wealth either.  He did a lot to protect some of Iowa’s vital industries, much to the chagrin of the radicals (IMO) on both sides.  

    People can’t even speak to each other these days, they are so afraid of a primary challenge.  Harkin sat down for an interview on C-Span recently that everyone should watch, he got really tired of the lack of civility IMO.  

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