Harkin Reflects on His Legacy

Dec 8, 2014

Sen. Tom Harkin retires from the U.S. Senate in January. He discusses his congressional legacy with Morning Edition, and gives a hint to his life's next chapter. 

Clay Masters: It’s Morning Edition on Iowa Public Radio. I’m Clay Masters. U.S. Democratic Senator Tom Harkin is retiring. He’s been a member of congress for 40 years—10 years in the House, and 30 in the Senate. Sen. Harkin is with me to discuss his career, and also what’s next.  Hello, Senator.

Sen. Tom Harkin: Good Morning. Good to be with you, Clay.

Masters: So why did you decide that now is the right time to retire from the Senate?

Sen. Harkin: Well, because I just felt after 40 years it was time to move on, and time for new young people, new people to come in with new ideas and new ways of doing things. And you know look, I still have my health, still pretty healthy and everything. I thought, you know, there’s some things I might want to do other than being in Congress before I cash it all in. So I just felt, for me it was the right time to just move on.

Masters: Now, you talk about of the some things you want to do. Last year Drake University founded the Harkin Institute. Now this is a nonpartisan public policy research institution dedicated to the issues that defined your legislative career.  What will be your day-to-day role with the organization?

Sen. Harkin: Well I’m not certain I’ll have a day-to-day role with it. I hope to be working with the institute to develop symposiums. Some ideas on how that institute might do things in areas like disability policy, for example. The institute might become a center of excellence in disability law, disability studies, employment of people with disabilities, both for here and abroad.

Masters: When it comes to issues that define your career, certainly at the top of that list is the Americans with Disabilities Act. What else would you put on that list?

Sen. Harkin: Well certainly Americans with Disabilities Act is something I take the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. Next year will be the 25th Anniversary, and I never imagined that it would do as much as it did in this country. Not only just the change in the physical structure in America, and the accommodations and everything like that, but the attitudinal changes that are now taking place in America.

That we’re now looking at people—you don’t see and say now, “There’s a disabled person.” People are not defined by their disability. You can say, “There’s a person with a disability,” but not “a disabled person,” not to define them.  And so I just, I couldn’t be happier with how that has all come out with the Americans with Disability Act. We’re leaders globally.

Beyond that, you know I served 40 years on the agricultural committee too. I chaired two farm bills. And I’m very proud of the fact that I started a new conservation program in the 2002 Farm Bill. Over 60 million acres are now enrolled nationwide, about 2 million in Iowa. And almost $300 million has been paid out to farmers for good conservation practices.  Nutrition programs that I was able to get in the farm bills for school lunch programs, better food, better nutrition.

And the third thing that I feel very strong is what I’ve be able to help here economically here in Iowa.  I started something called the—they called it the Harkin Grant program, I didn’t call it that. And over 300 school districts in Iowa have gotten money to put in better fire protection, better safety, and modernization, building new classrooms.

Masters: On your birthday last month Sen. Chuck Grassley gave a touching speech on the Senate floor discussing your career. And we have a little bit of what he had to say. We’re going to hear it right now:

Grassley: Although our voting records may reflect night and day positions on some public policy, you wouldn’t see the light of day between us when we worked together on matters that are of most important to Iowans. 

Your working relationship with Sen. Grassley is often cited as a great example of bipartisanship. How can Congress return to a less contentious era?

Sen. Harkin: First of all I’ve had a great working relationship with Chuck Grassley, and he’s right we don’t see eye-to-eye on philosophy. That’s OK. I’ve always considered myself as a pragmatic progressive. Sure I’m progressive, I’m liberal. But I’ll be glad to work across the aisle and get things done, especially when it pertains to the state of Iowa.

Masters: What have you done with Sen. Grassley for the state of Iowa over the years?

Sen. Harkin: Oh my gosh, farm bill stuff, all the stuff I’m talking about on conservation stuff. Tag team with him on infrastructure projects, like the National Animal Disease lab up in Ames. Oh there’s a whole host of things.

Masters: So is Iowa losing its voice a little bit not having a Democrat and a Republican representing the state in the Senate, now?

Sen. Harkin: Well I don’t know. I think there might be something to that. I think Iowa has benefited from that balance. But you know, that can change. It all depends on Senator-Elect Ernst and how she decides to represent the state and work.

Masters: You mentioned Senator-Elect Joni Ernst who will be replacing you in January. Now she defeated Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley. You often said on the campaign trial that the best legacy for you would be if Braley took over your seat. How will his loss affect your legacy?

Sen. Harkin: Well I think, you know. A lot of those things you say in a campaign. Come on, give me a break—

Masters: Ok. I got it—

Sen. Harkin: Campaign stuff. But I do, did feel at the time that he would kind of follow some of the progressive policies that, that I had. Now whether Senator-Elect Ernst will do that or not, I don’t know.

But you know, the Republicans had a great year. Well I remember times in the past when Democrats had a great year. So these things come, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should be that way. There shouldn’t be any one party that dominates forever, and ever and ever and ever.

Masters: Senator Harkin, thanks so much.

Sen. Harkin: Well thank you, Clay. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be with you. And thanks for Iowa Public Radio.

Masters: That’s retiring Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, talking about his legacy and what’s next for him. This is Morning Edition on Iowa Public Radio. I’m Clay Masters