Iowa Public Television


Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Cumming)

posted on May 7, 2009

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Borg: Leveraging power. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is among the democratic congressional majority that's key to President Obama's change agenda. A conversation with Senator Harkin on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's private colleges and universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 8th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The listing of items considered high priority for the Obama administration is so long one wonders if there's time and political practicality to do it all. Two wars ... a deep recession ... healthcare reform. The subjects are overwhelming. Add to that appointing a new justice to the Supreme Court. In all of these, President Obama will be leveraging his own intangible political capital and the very tangible democratic congressional majorities. That's where Iowa Senator Tom Harkin stands ready. In healthcare, for example, Senator Tom Harkin, chairing the prevention and public health working group, is guiding key discussions on molding the nation's health care system. Senator Harkin, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Harkin: Nice to be back, Dean.

Borg: And across the table, some people you know very well, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director, Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator, let's begin with healthcare. What are the prospects for healthcare reform?

Harkin: Excellent, we're working hard right now. In fact, on the health committee on which I serve and chairing the working group on prevention and public health we actually have our legislation being drafted by the professional drafters. We will have -- all the bills must be done by the 22nd -- all amendments must be filed by the 29th of this month. We will begin our markup on it as soon as we return from the Memorial Day break in June both in our committee and in the finance committee and we will have finished those in the committee in June and be ready for the floor in July.

Glover: What does this look like?

Harkin: Well, I think what it's going to look like is hopefully a change from what we have. As I've said the only thing that's really not acceptable is the status quo. When I go out and listen to Iowans and we listen very closely to people they voted for change in November and they want a change from the present system. The present system isn't working and what we need to do is to do the following. Number one, as I keep talking about, change from a sick care system to a healthcare system. As I've said many times we don't have a healthcare system in America, we have a sick care system. If you get sick you get care. That's where all the incentives are. What we need to do is to put more into prevention and wellness up front, keeping people healthy in the first place. President Obama gets this. He is the first president that I have heard in all my years there say to a joint session of Congress when he talked about healthcare reform, he said, it's time to make a major investment in prevention and wellness because that is the best way to keep people healthy and to save money.

Glover: Will everyone be covered when you get done with this bill?

Harkin: Absolutely. That's the other thing, we have to have a health reform that is universal, that is comprehensive, accessible and affordable to all.

Borg: But there has to be a sick care too. Will there be enough money to do that?

Harkin: Absolutely, yes. It's like this, there's going to be a cost to this initially but it's only kind of a budget kind of a deal. It's sort of like now, I use this analogy, if you get a flu shot at the beginning of the flu season it costs you $12, $15. What is the benefit? You save a lot of money. Right now 36,000 people die every year in this country because of seasonal flu. $90 billion dollars a year are spent in hospitalizations. What if no one got a flu shot? But we don't think about the savings that accrue because of that. So, when I'm talking about prevention and wellness yes, it's going to cost some things but believe me it's going to save a lot of money. I've said before, Dean, there's enough money in our healthcare system in America, over $2.7 trillion dollars a year, it just needs to be redirected.

Glover: What do you say to people who have health coverage and may be paying a little more than they'd like for their health insurance but a big bulk of this country has healthcare, what do you say to them?

Harkin: I say to them, like President Obama says, if you've got a healthcare plan you like and you want to keep it you have no problems, you'll be able to keep your healthcare plan. But we are going to have other plans that will be out there for people, the 47 million Americans who don't have a plan, or people who may have a plan but doesn't give them very much coverage or a plan that has a high deductible or high copays that they really can't afford, maybe it's just catastrophic, a lot of people have just catastrophic coverage and we need healthcare that will, as I said, that will enable you to go in for a physical checkup without a copay or deductible, enable you to get a mammogram screening without paying anything, colonoscopies without copays and deductibles, immunizations for your children without copays and deductibles because that will keep people healthy.

Glover: What was the tipping point? This has been an issue that Congress has never been able to tackle in the past. Suddenly this year your colleague Senator Grassley says this is the year it's going to happen, you're telling us this is the year it's going to happen, what happened?

Harkin: Well, it finally got to the point where everybody said we can't go on and we were listening to people, the American people are saying no, we can not continue on like we're doing. I remember the Clinton healthcare, I was there at that time and at that time we didn't have the business community that wanted a change, the healthcare providers in America didn't necessarily want a change, labor they weren't ready for changing the system back in the 90s, they had all their healthcare plans and so we didn't have a critical mass. Now we have the health insurance industry, the hospitals, the doctors, labor, and just the bulk of American people saying we've got to make a change.

Henderson: You mentioned businesses. How do you prevent businesses from saying I no longer wish to provide a healthcare benefit to my employees because now they can obtain it elsewhere?

Harkin: Well, we're looking at what Massachusetts did and that's what we call pay or play. If you're a small employer, for example, and you can't afford coverage then you would have to pay into the system and there would be what we call maybe a connector, like a board of directors or a connector, a central point that would then make sure that people who work for you were able to get into the system and able to get healthcare coverage.

Borg: You mentioned earlier the flu, there's a real case of that right now and that is worldwide concern about the H1N1 virus. That's also causing some concern in world trade, pork banning.

Harkin: I know, Dean.

Borg: What can be done?

Harkin: First of all, I'm really sorry that this got to be called swine flu. This is not swine flu. It did not come from pigs. There has never been a case yet of this H1N1 coming from a pig. So, it's just what the press picked up and that's what they called it and it stuck. Now, as you know the Obama administration we've been trying to get off of that and not talking about it being the swine flu because it's not. I've talked both to our trade representative and with our Secretary of Commerce and with Secretary Vilsack about getting to our trading partners and saying that if they don't lift their ban, that's China, Indonesia, Soviet Union or Russia, what they're doing they know is not right. The World Health Organization has said that there is no reason for anyone to stop the trading in pork at all whatsoever. So, what they're doing really is a violation of trade and if they don't lift it then we're going to let them know we're going to take trade sanctions against them.

Glover: Another issue that's pretty close to your heart is ethanol. There's a lot of discussion about increasing the blend of ethanol up to 15%. What is going to happen with that and where are you?

Harkin: I sure hope it happens, Mike. It's long overdue. The 10% that we have now there was never any scientific basis for that, it was just sort of 10% and we have lived with that. We have enough data now and enough scientific data on it to know that you can blend a lot higher blend of ethanol and in normal engines it won't have any effect whatsoever. Actually you can get probably close to 20% so we said at least 15% will give us 50% more use of ethanol and that will help take us out of this ethanol slump that we're in.

Glover: And given the price of corn right now how competitive is the ethanol? Isn't it losing a little bit of its edge?

Harkin: Well, I don't think so, I don't think so. Of course, it is cost competitive, as you know, with oil, with gasoline but I still think at the present time if we can get the blend ratio up to 15% I think that we'll be okay, we'll be fine.

Henderson: President Obama in his Condition of the Union speech suggested that there needed to be a new look at ag subsidies to ensure that they're not being paid to millionaires and people who aren't actively farming. As chairman of the Senate Ag Committee are you ready to move on a bill that would set stricter limits?

Harkin: Well, I tried that before and I didn't get very far.

Henderson: But with his help?

Harkin: I think that's one of the areas where Senator Grassley and I both agree very much that we have to put better limits on payments and we fought for that in the last farm bill but I just didn't have the votes.

Henderson: So, what are prospects this year since President Obama has made this a priority?

Harkin: Well, I hope we can get there, I hope we can change a lot of the things we're doing in agriculture and put stricter limits on payments.

Borg: Is that the priority, the cap on payments, is that the priority in changing the farm bill? You said you wanted changes.

Harkin: Well, I don't know that that's a priority, it's one of the things I think we should do just from a standpoint of equity for all farmers in America? There's other things that I think we need to be doing in agriculture more strenuously and I think that is more emphasis on conservation, more emphasis on energy crops and cellulosic ethanol, getting back to the ethanol issue, we need to be putting more emphasis and the Obama administration has talked about this and President Obama himself talked about shifting to cellulosic ethanol. We have the structure basically in the farm bill, Dean, we just need to get some funds for it and we need to have the administration push very hard on this.

Glover: Senator, there's another sort of an artificial barrier that has been put on a lot of presidencies including this one and that is the first 100 days, everybody likes to look at the first 100 days of a new administration. Probably the signature of the first 100 days of this administration was a massive infusion of money into the nation's financial system. Is that working? How is it selling politically?

Harkin: Well, is it working, yes it's working. Will it work completely? We don't know yet in terms of stopping the slide in the recession in this country. I think newspapers yesterday and today are reporting that there's some indications that the recession is slowing, housing sales kind of went up a little bit last month, job losses have slowed down so we're hoping that this is sort of stopped. But the bulk of the money that we put into the stimulus really hasn't gone out there yet. Iowa has $2 billion coming, $2 billion. Now, some of that has come here but a lot more is coming for highways and roads and bridges and sewer and water systems and a lot of that work is going to start this summer. So, a lot of the stimulus money, that's what you're talking about, hasn't really got out there yet. That will be this summer and this fall and this winter.

Glover: Where are we in this whole recession cycle? Are we at the bottom? Flattening out? Still sinking? Give us your take on where we are.

Harkin: If I knew the answer to that question, Mike, I'd go to Las Vegas tomorrow. I wish I knew. All I can say is there are a lot of good signs out there and I remain optimistic that we are seeing this bottoming out, I sure hope that happens, all the indications are that that could be happening but we're in a worldwide kind of a recession right now so I think the most important thing is to keep at it, keep at the stimulus, keep at all the things we're doing right now to put people back to work, keep people working like we've done here in Iowa and other places. By the way, I have to congratulate Governor Culver and the legislature for passing that jobs bill, it's the right thing to do, the right thing to do.

Glover: Talk to me about the politics of it. The polls I've seen are decidedly mixed, it doesn't seem like an overwhelming majority of Americans like this approach. What do you think the politics of it is?

Harkin: Well, I think that the polls show that the people want the government to do something, they want a change in the way we were doing things and this is definitely a change in what we're doing. I think as they begin to see more and more of the stimulus money and the effect that it has it will pick up more and more support. For example, we're seeing teachers are not being laid off like we thought they might be laid off. Other public employees are not being laid off. This summer we're going to see a lot of work in this country this summer on a lot of infrastructure projects. When people see these things happening it will, again, I think infuse people's optimism and the sense that things are getting back up again.

Henderson: Another component of the federal government bailout has been assistance to the auto industry. Are you confident that what is happening in the auto industry will begin to turn the corner and those companies will be successful or will Chrysler cease to exist?

Harkin: Well, that's also a tough one. Again, I'm hopeful that some of the things we're doing will turn around. I remain convinced that we need a domestic auto industry in this country and we have to get through a period of time here where they're just not very competitive right now. It may take some more infusion of some funds to get that done, they need retooling. What they really need to do is they need to rapidly start making cars that people want to buy. I was just saying to some people before the show we had an exhibit of electric cars in the capitol here a couple of weeks ago, all these foreign made cars. Where is the U.S. electric car? We're years behind. We've got to catch up and the sooner that Detroit catches up with what people want, energy efficiency, electric cars, then we'll be fine.

Borg: When I hear you say this country needs a vibrant and sustainable auto industry you'd be willing to put more billions into the auto industry to achieve that?

Harkin: Yes, I believe so. But, again, only if they're going to change the way they're doing things and start making cars that are energy efficient, fuel efficient, electric cars, hybrids, things like that.

Glover: What do you say to people who say, you identified it yourself, when they start building cars that people want to buy they'll be okay. Hasn't the auto industry been its own victim? Haven't they been for all these years making cars that people don't want to buy? And why should you and I rush in to bail them out?

Harkin: Well, again, you're right, they have been their own worst enemy. Think about this, 35, 40 years ago you never heard of Toyota and Honda and Nissan but look at them now.

Borg: To what extent do you also blame as some do the UAW for saddling the auto industry with such high overhead they can't compete?

Harkin: That's a recent phenomenon, that has not been true in the past. The fact that they did not make cars to compete with Japan had nothing to do with the auto workers. The auto workers don't design the cars. It's not the auto workers who plan ahead for what kind of cars to make, they're just making whatever the executives tell them to make. Now, recently as you know, the auto workers have taken a big hit in their pay and in their benefits to keep the auto industry alive. But in the past that has not been a problem in terms of their wages and benefits that's only recently that's been a problem. I think what they've done, what the United Auto Workers have done in the last couple of years in being willing to cut their pay, cut their benefits, cut all this stuff I think they're to be commended for that.

Glover: We've got way too many questions and way too little time. An issue that has been injected into this state by the state Supreme Court is gay marriage. Somebody who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, what do you think about that ruling? What do you think the political fallout will be?

Harkin: I read the judge's ruling on that and I comment to everyone read Judge Cady's decision on that, it's very enlightening. I did not know, for example, that in 1839 the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court banned slavery, that in 1869, 100 years prior to Brown versus the Board of Education the Iowa Supreme Court banned segregation in schools or that Iowa before the turn of the previous century admitted a woman to the bar. I'm sure those were all controversial issues at the time. But it seems to me Iowa has always been in the forefront of extending civil rights to people, always in the forefront of this. This, again, is just another step in that march that we've had in Iowa and I think now you see a lot of other states falling in line, just here in the last week.

Glover: What are the politics of it? A lot of republicans will say game, set, match, 2010 will be all about gay marriage and we'll win.

Harkin: No, I just disagree, I just disagree. I think that like a lot of these earlier things that happened a couple years from now people will look back and say what was the fuss about? Nothing. I think 2010 the elections will hinge on the economy, healthcare reform, what we're doing in energy and whether families are doing better, whether they can see that their kids are going to have a better education, whether their lives are getting better or not, it's not going to have one bit to do with gay marriage.

Henderson: So, if you as an Iowa voter are presented with a state constitutional amendment which would ban gay marriage in Iowa how would you vote?

Harkin: I would vote against it.

Glover: Do you think that will happen? Do you think there will be a debate set up about a constitutional amendment or do you think it will fade before then?

Harkin: I think it will fade. There's always going to be some who feel that they have to push this issue and for whatever reason they're going to try to push it and try to divide people up but they're on the losing end, they're on the losing end of history.

Henderson: So, what has changed for you from 1998 when you voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and today?

Harkin: Well, we all grow as we get older and we learn things and we become more sensitive to people and people's lives and the more I've looked at that I've grown to think differently about how people, how we should live and I guess I'm at the point of live and let live.

Glover: There's some suggestions that this could actually be damaging to the conservative movement, it energizes the right wing of the Republican Party and they become an even bigger force in making the party that much harder to attract moderate voters. Is that possible?

Harkin: I think so and even though I welcome Senator Specter to the democratic party I was at an event a few evenings ago that was a bipartisan event and it was on healthcare and I made the comment that I'm losing all my republican friends, they're all becoming democrats or independents or retiring. I think about this and I think about the moderate republicans that were in the senate before when I was there and they're all gone with the exception of maybe two or three and I'm not trying to give instructions to the republican party, believe me, but this is not good for America, this is not good when a party becomes so narrowly based that it can't attract moderates to it.

Borg: Let me just follow that with a question. Why can't your party here in Iowa then find an opponent for Senator Grassley?

Harkin: Well, I don't know. Maybe there will be an opponent for Senator Grassley, I don't know, I think a lot depends on how Senator Grassley approaches healthcare reform and the energy issues and these things all tend to happen in the year before the election. I would assume that there would be an opponent, I don't know yet. But I think it's healthy. I've always had an opponent and I think it's healthy to have a debate when the election rolls around both about your stewardship of how you've performed as a representative of the people but also what do you want to do in the future.

Henderson: We don't yet know who President Obama will suggest as the next justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. Do you think that any nominee that he presents to the Senate will have problems?

Harkin: Well, I hope not. I hope that we have a decent hearing and debate and vote. I don't know who that's going to be, who the nominee is going to be, he hasn't consulted with me on that as you can imagine.

Henderson: But given the makeup of the U.S. Senate now and the prospect of Al Franken becoming the 60th democratic senator?

Harkin: Well, look, here's what's happening in the senate today, you've got a few republicans that just want to stop everything, they're just saying no to everything and quite frankly the republican leadership in the senate is going along with that to the extent that when you have four or five senators that are able to block and stop just about anything, it shouldn't be that way. Now, that's one of the reasons why we put reconciliation, we put into the budget a provision that would allow us at the end to have 51 votes to pass a healthcare reform bill rather than 60 votes. Now, why do that? Let's say we do -- I hope we do have a great bipartisan bill that is broadly supported for healthcare reform -- but what if there's four or five republicans that just want to stop it? Can we allow four or five to just block everything even though the vast majority want to get it in? No. So, that's why we have that provision in there.

Glover: Who would you like to see him appoint to the Court? Any names in mind?

Harkin: I hope he appoints someone who went to night law school, someone who had to work and go to night law school and didn't go to Harvard or Yale or one of those, just someone who just ...

Henderson: Are you putting your name forward, Senator?

Harkin: No, but you get my point I think.

Glover: I'd like you to take a look at the next presidential election and Iowa's role in it, presumable President Obama will not have democratic opposition, presumably he'll have a free ride so it will be a republican story. Will Iowa be first again in 2012? What can you do to help see that it is?

Harkin: I can assure you that Iowa will be first in 2012, it's the next one 2016 that we have to be concerned about. But 2012 we'll be first, there's just no doubt in anyone's mind.

Glover: There is an argument made that the biggest opponent or the biggest problem that Iowa faces is the Iowa Republican Party because it has drifted so far so the right that potential candidates may feel free to skip it. I've been told by Mitt Romney's people he won't be here if he runs again. Is that a danger?

Harkin: It is, it is dangerous and we have a lot of good moderate republicans in this state and many of them are friends of mine, they don't necessarily support me, but they are my friends and they're people I have a great deal of respect for and I hope that they will make their voices heard in the republican party in this state because, you're right, if it drifts more and more to get more and more narrow this could be a danger for us in keeping that first in the nation status.

Borg: Senator Harkin, I have to keep time here and we're out of it. Thanks so much for being with us.

Harkin: So quick.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we're glancing back at the just completed 2009 legislative session. We're getting perspective from the Iowa Senate's Democratic Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs. You'll see that conversation at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association ... for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa ... the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. By Iowa's private colleges and universities ... enrolling 25% of the total Iowa higher education enrollment and conferring 44% of the baccalaureate and 40% of the graduate degrees in the state. More information is available at The Iowa Hospital Association ... supporting the missions and visions of Iowa's 117 community hospitals. The Iowa Hospital Association ... we care about Iowa's health.

Tags: Congress Democrats Iowa politics