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Senator Tom Harkin Discusses the 112th Congress

posted on February 4, 2011

Seeking middle ground. Democrats in the U.S. Congress adjusting to new realities, wooing new republican strength in moving Obama legislative priorities. Iowa's democratic Senator Tom Harkin among Senate leaders and we're talking with him on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: The U.S. Congress somewhat mirrors changes in Iowa's General Assembly. Following last November's elections republicans now controlling the U.S. House of Representatives and flexing much more power in the U.S. Senate. Those dynamics are playing out in budget matters, tax policy and, of course, possible changes to the nation's new health care law. There are new calls for bipartisan cooperation but others are sensing gridlock as both parties position themselves for the 2012 presidential election. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is among the slimmer, but still controlling, Senate democratic majority. He chairs what is known as the H.E.L.P. committee, H.E.L.P.. That is an acronym for health, education, labor and pensions, a natural clash point for conservative and liberal views. Senator Harkin, it's been a while since you've been on Iowa Press. Welcome back.

Harkin: Well, thanks for saying I was slimmer. I like that.

Borg: I think actually you misheard, I said majority.

Harkin: I got it.

Borg: Okay. Across the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Senator, there is turmoil in Egypt and there is turmoil throughout the Middle East. What is happening there?

Harkin: I think what is happening is the people who have not had any access to the political mechanisms in their country for so long are now finding that they can come out on the streets, they can express themselves and they can really perhaps make the changes that they want to make. Tunisia, of course, was the tipping point. And I think that is what you're seeing in Egypt. You've had a dictator there for a long time, our buddy, but there has been no outlets for any political opposition and it has finally reached the boiling point and that's what is happening.

Glover: You mentioned our buddy, Mubarak. How much of this is because we have overplayed our hand or played our hand wrong in the region? We have supported a lot of these strict regimes. To what extent have we contributed?

Harkin: Well, Mike, I think this just goes from our history -- for too long we have supported a lot of dictators who were our allies and our friends but we haven't really done anything to help urge them, move them off of their political system and try to open it up a little bit. We should have been working with Mubarak for the last 30 years, little bit by little bit by little bit. I think we were just content to say, you take care of it, you're our friend, you're our ally and move on. We did the same thing in Chile with Pinochet, with the generals in Argentina, with Marcos in the Philippines.

Glover: And it didn't work so well in any of those places.

Harkin: It didn't work anywhere. See, we have got to understand that in those countries that many of those people are just like our early colonists and our early people here who had the yolk of Britain on them and they didn't want to live like that anymore. They wanted more freedom. They wanted to be ale to express themselves. And, of all of the nations on Earth we should understand that.

Henderson: Senator, there have been some who have raised concerns about the U.S. intelligence community in that this was sort of a surprise. Do you have concerns that the intelligence apparatus hasn't geared up or responded after the 9/11 episode?

Harkin: Well, now that's interesting, Kay, because we have had -- I'm not on the intelligence committee, first of all -- but obviously from other entities, NGO is the Non-Governmental Organization and different entities like that, that have been working in Egypt and these other countries, we have had this kind of information coming in that, you know, things aren't like they seem, that there's something underneath going on and people, bit by bit, are getting fed up with these regimes and we have just sort of ignored it. Now, I can't say whether that is a failure on our intelligence part or did the intelligence community have that and it was just sort of not paid attention to by the political structure of our country.

Borg: What are the implications for Iowa of the instability in the Middle East? You're a U.S. Senator, you have your own responsibilities there as it relates to foreign policy but you also have Iowa roots. Do you see some implications here? I'm thinking of petroleum and the effect on production agriculture, gas pump and so on.

Harkin: Sure, it all comes down to things that we consume that we may get from some of these countries whether it is Egypt or Saudi Arabia or any of those, the Emirates over there and it does filter down, it filters down to everything that affects us here in Iowa. That is why I have been vocal in trying to do whatever we can to get us to more different energy systems in this country, Dean, renewable energy systems, ethanol, wind, all the things that we ought to be doing so that we don't depend so much on Middle East oil.

Borg: But that is taking time and this is happening rather rapidly, in fact, there may be some ripple effects in the Middle East. Are you fearing that there are ripple effects and other nations might also take up what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt?

Harkin: Absolutely but, again, it's not something that we can control. If anything we have to understand ...

Borg: But you just said a moment ago that we should have been trying to control this previously and you say now that you can't control it.

Harkin: Not so much controlling it, Dean, but understanding it and working with those dictators and those other, let them know that we want to have their system a little bit more open. If they are going to be our allies we want some openings here, some openings there, it is a gradual process, it's not something you can do overnight. But we should have been doing this for the last 30 years. We have been treating those countries and those dictators the same way we treated them after World War II. Things have changed.

Glover: What is the implication of all this ...

Harkin: And the Internet, excuse me, the Internet and the availability and the access to the World Wide Web has changed those countries dramatically.

Glover: What is the implications for the farm economy? How should the farm economy change, or should it, to react to this?

Harkin: Well, I don't know that this is going to have a direct implication right now. It may filter down in terms of what Dean said, higher gasoline prices, we've seen gasoline prices have gone up 25% just in the last year, by the way.

Glover: I noticed.

Harkin: Mm-hmm, you know, everyone knows that. And so that is sort of the implications for us is what it will do to our energy prices. But then again, how many times are we going to be like old Charlie Brown and kicking that football that Lucy is holding? Every time we get up to the plate to do something about renewable energy and getting more independent they drop the oil prices. So then we say, well, we don't have to worry about it. This has been going on for the last, well since the late 70s. It is time that we understand that we have got to forge ahead and make ourselves more independent in energy regardless of what the oil prices are.

Henderson: Speaking of forging ahead, there are republicans in the House and in the Senate who wish to end the subsidy for ethanol and for biodiesel. They also want to cut farm subsidies. That is not, in your view, forging ahead, is it?

Harkin: Well, I think we have reached the point now in ethanol as a liquid fuel where I don't know that we need the price support so much anymore but what we need is market access, market access. I have been trying for some time, again, with Senator Lugar, so we have had a bipartisan approach on this, to expand the market for ethanol. That means we need more blender pumps, we need more flexible fuel cars and we need dedicated pipelines to carry the ethanol from the Midwest to the east. Let me expand on that just a second. We called in some of the auto companies just a few years ago and met with them to ask them why they weren't building more flexible fuel vehicles because they build them in Brazil, Ford every car they build in Brazil is flexible fuel or GM or Honda or Toyota. So, we called them and we said, why aren't you building more flex fuel cars here? Well, their answer was because there's no blender pumps. There's no pumps out there. So, we called in the oil companies and we asked them, why aren't you putting in more blender pumps? Do you know what their answer was? Because there aren't any flexible fuel cars out there.

Henderson: So you would support requiring the auto makers to make flexible fuel vehicles?

Harkin: Absolutely, I have a bill in to do that.

Henderson: And get rid of ethanol subsidies?

Harkin: Well, a gradual reduction in the ethanol subsidies but to get the -- and we're going to have to confront that this year, by the way. But we have to mandate flexible fuel vehicles and we have to mandate, I believe, blender pumps and I worked a couple of years ago to get some changes in the tax law to make it easier to build a pipeline and I believe that is going to happen in the next few years, a pipeline that will go from Iowa to New York City and so we're going to be able to deliver ethanol to mass markets. That is what ethanol needs, market access.

Glover: And where are we going from here? How do you go about that? What is the next step?

Borg: In farm policy.

Glover: What is the next step in farm policy to incent that?

Harkin: Well, look, if we have the flexible fuel vehicles and we increase the number of pumps at our stations that can take this and we get the ethanol to the mass markets there will be a demand for ethanol, a huge demand and it will be market driven.

Borg: Isn't the current price, though, of corn, soybeans, inflating food prices? Isn't that weakening your hand among urban representatives and senators in continuing what farmers have had?

Harkin: Well, that is because they are mistaken and we always have to continually remind them that the corn that is used to make ethanol is not just thrown away because it is used as a feed afterward. We just take the alcohol out and we have a lot of good feed left for cattle and for poultry and some hogs, you have to blend it differently for hogs. But they don't understand that, they don't understand that. It's just a continual battle that we have.

Henderson: Speaking of continual battles, the Senate H.E.L.P. committee deals with labor issues. You have not been able to advance a labor bill that the unions have wanted for years. Describe that impasse and also describe why labor unions should support democratic candidates in the future if you're not able to deliver on the labor union's policy.

Harkin: Well, look, I believe that labor policy ought to be a blend of different things, certainly organized labor has some agendas, items that they want. And some of them we have not been able to get through. But on the other hand, we have, I think, been very good at increasing workplace safety, strengthening our occupational safety and health laws in this country. Right now we're working on a mine safety law that I hope that we can get through now even bipartisan support. We are having -- we're cutting down on the number of cases before the National Labor Relations Board that have built up so we're doing that, we're getting those down. So, I think that in many ways we have been supportive. We just took a very key vote just the other day in the Senate, I forget who it was that offered the amendment, Wicker from Mississippi I believe, no it was Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky, offered an amendment to do away with Davis Bacon productions, this is the prevailing wage in construction projects. And we won it. He lost that vote quite large, by the way, we had some republicans on our side. So, labor still has a good agenda and they have good support in the Senate.

Glover: And the Senate recently refused or rejected an attempt to repeal the health care overhaul law. Was that health care reform bill a political mistake? Republicans seem to be salivating over that. Can they use that in the next election?

Harkin: Mike, I'll tell you, as you know they had the amendment to repeal the health care bill in the Senate and it lost. It's not going anywhere in the Senate and even if it did the President is going to veto it and they wouldn't have two-thirds vote to override the President's veto. Every day that goes by, every month that goes by more and more people understand the benefits of this health reform bill, even here in Iowa, even here in Iowa. 8,000 kids in Iowa who otherwise would be off their parent's policy now are on their parent's insurance policy. If you repeal it, 8,000 kids in Iowa would be out of luck. Right now in Iowa the elderly, elderly people on Medicare beginning just in January of this year get free annual checkups, free colonoscopies, free mammograms, you repeal it and you take that away. Right now in Iowa all of our kids up to age nineteen are covered even though they may have a pre-existing condition and that is going to cover everyone by 2014. Right now in Iowa they can not cut you off because of a lifetime limit. Right now in Iowa they can't cut you off if you get cancer. Are you going to tell me that republicans are going to repeal that? They voted to do that, by the way.

Henderson: Republicans in the Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill this past week to say that Iowans should not be penalized if they don't follow the mandate portion and acquire insurance by the deadline. So, you do have republicans who are pushing an agenda of repeal.

Harkin: Let me talk about that mandate just a second. So, everyone is saying, well, there's a mandate. Yes there is in our bill a mandate that you have to have insurance by 2014 and that if you can't afford it the government will subsidize it. People say, well we shouldn't be able to mandate people to do something like that but we already are mandated. If you have a private health insurance policy and you have a private health insurance policy and you have a private health insurance policy, right now you are mandated, you have to pay an additional amount of money every year or month, however you pay on your policy, to cover the uncompensated care of people. Let me explain that further.

Borg: Cost shifting.

Harkin: What is happening now, we have 30 million Americans that have no insurance coverage. When they get sick they go to the emergency room and they get taken care of. Who pays for that? Your insurance policies. Let me finish -- $1100 per year average per family in the United States. Now, that is a mandate. Why? Because if I want health insurance I have to pay that, I can not escape paying it and neither can you or you or you or no other American. So, to me that is the worst of all mandates.

Borg: Let me take you to another subject as we've got so much to talk about here. You've been away too long. In Iowa, a new law has made it easier for sheriffs now, in fact, mandated that they must issue permits to carry concealed weapons.

Harkin: I disagree with it.

Borg: And in Texas the legislature is considering letting college students arm themselves. Does this concern you? And where should we go as a nation? What should we be doing? We're loosening the legislation right now restricting guns.

Harkin: Well, I have, as a hunter and a gun owner myself I believe there is a legitimate right for people to have certain Second Amendment rights in terms of owning guns and firearms. But we have to be rational about this and reasonable about this. I mean, this terrible thing that just happened in Tuscon, Arizona. How could someone who had a history of mental illness go out and not only buy a Glock but to buy the huge clip that holds 30 bullets? That makes no sense. That is not for hunting and it's not even for target practice, it is just used for killing people. So, we need some better laws in terms of traceability, of making sure that people have to go through certain background checks before they can do that. Again, we need again to have a ban on assault weapons in our society. There's a lot of things we can do.

Glover: Senator, it wouldn't be an official Iowa Press program if we didn't spend a little time just talking about politics. You're not up next year but you're up in a few years. Is there another term in your future? It's never too early to declare.

Harkin: Yeah, I know but it's too early for me. Look, I know you're not going to like my answer but Dean said it's been a long time since you've seen me, I've got a lot on my plate. I, because of my seniority, I have the privilege of chairing the largest committee in the United States Senate, the largest committee, we cover three departments, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor plus the National Institution of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a lot of stuff is happening. Right now I am engaged and have been for the last year in changing No Child Left Behind, the education bill. We're working on that. I want to get that done hopefully by this summer so I've been working on a bipartisan basis with hearings and everything to get that done. I have also been working on the health care bill, making sure that we implement the health care bill reasonably, in a good solid fashion. I mentioned the mine problems, the mine safety problems and the disasters we have had that we have been working on that. So, I have not really been putting a lot of thought into something that is going to happen four years from now. I'll decide that after the next election, after the 2012 election and then I'll be in cycle for 2014 so I haven't made any decisions on that but as you can probably tell I like my job.

Glover: And probably the hottest political topic in Iowa these days was the decision by voters in November to remove three justices of the Supreme Court because of their ruling on same-sex marriages. What is your take on that? And is there a danger there? What is happening to our court systems?

Harkin: Well, I wish that vote had been different. I think it was not a good move to remove these justices based upon a decision they made. The law of Iowa allows that to happen because you're up, what is it every five years I believe if I'm not mistaken on a yes or no vote. But from my reading of it that was put there to be able to remove a judge or a justice of the Supreme Court for malfeasance, for other things other than a decision that they made. There have been decisions made by this Supreme Court in Iowa that I didn't agree with but I don't feel that I should vote them out just because they made a decision I disagree with. I read Justice Cady's opinion in the Varnum case, beautiful, it's beautifully written and it's so, it almost gives you goose bumps to read about the history of Iowa and how Iowa has always been in the forefront of civil rights.

Glover: Is there a danger to the court system with this?

Harkin: I think there is, Mike, I think there is a danger out there. Those who are trying to politicize the court system in Iowa are doing us a great disservice. I don't mean just the court service, I mean the state of Iowa. They are doing us a great disservice. We have always had and I can tell you from being in Washington all these years and talking with people our court system in Iowa, our judicial system has always been ranked one of the best in the nation if not the best in the nation and now it is being torn down and almost turned into a political office. Justice Cady in his State of the Judicial Address to the legislature just a little while ago, I think he said something very important. The justices answer to the law, not to constituents, they answer to the Constitution, not the public opinion and I think that just really encapsulates it right there and I would hope that those who want to politicize this would not do it. I don't mind if people disagree with an opinion, people have that right and they should express themselves but to take it to the point where because of a decision someone is removed from office I think endangers the state of Iowa.

Henderson: Senator, with the defeat of Chet Culver you are the top democrat in Iowa solo directing the Iowa Democratic Party. In 2012 there will be redistricting in which perhaps some of the Iowa Congressmen will be running against one another. Do you intend to remain neutral in those races or do you intend to endorse candidates?  How will you function as the party's top leader?

Harkin: Well, first, I'm very proud of the congressmen from Iowa, the democrats all got re-elected. We were the only state in just about the whole Midwest where three democratic congressmen got re-elected, Congressman Boswell, Congressman Braley and Congressman Loebsack so I'm very proud of them and I worked very closely with them in the Congress. They are dedicated, good, hardworking public servants. I don't know what the redistricting is going to show and, again, that is another good thing about Iowa, we have a good non-partisan way of doing redistricting and I hope no one messes that one up. But we'll have to see how the maps come out. I mean, it could be that -- now, we're going to lose one congressman so we know two are going to be thrown together some place. I think that the general wisdom is that probably the large district in western Iowa will move east probably.

Henderson: There is also the prospect that Christie Vilsack, the former First Lady of Iowa and Congressman Leonard Boswell will be running against one another in a primary. Will you endorse a candidate in that potential race?

Harkin: Well, look, I have great respect for Christie Vilsack, I've known her for a long time, she has been one of, since I'm so heavily into education here, someone who has been in education all her life so I have a great deal of respect for her and her abilities. She has a lot of talent and a lot of support in the state of Iowa. But I do not see really a primary with her and Congressman Boswell, I don't see that happening.

Glover: And President Obama is up next year. Do you see him getting a primary opponent? And what role do you expect to play in that campaign?

Harkin: I can't see that, right now, that President Obama would have a primary opponent, Mike, I don't see that in the cards. I think our economy is getting better, not quite as fast as I'd like to see it but we're now adding jobs rather than taking jobs away so if this continues over the next several months I think Obama is going to be in pretty good shape.

Glover: And what role do you expect to play in that campaign?

Harkin: Well, I don't know what role I'll be playing right now. I assume I'll be supporting President Obama when he runs for re-election but I'll also be supporting our Iowa candidates and doing what I can to help my party here in the state of Iowa.

Henderson: With the loss of Senator Kennedy and the defeat of Senator Russ Feingold, many look to you as the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. Are they correct?

Harkin: Well, I hope they look at me as someone who chairs the committee in the Senate that defines America. I have often -- I've said before the defense committee, it defends America. The committee I chair defines what kind of society we are going to be. Are we going to have quality education for our kids? Good health care? Job opportunities? I hope that is what they look upon me as is someone who is working for a decent, more caring society.

Borg: I'm sorry I have to be the clobber master. Thanks for coming back. Come back soon. On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll be checking progress on the republican priorities at the Statehouse, both Governor Branstad's and those of legislative republicans. We'll be talking with the Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, Hiawatha republican Kraig Paulsen, usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: 3rd Congressional District Christie Vilsack Congress Democrats education Egypt ethanol health health care reform Health Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) Iowa Iowa Supreme Court Leonard Boswell politics Tom Harkin U.S. Congress U.S. Representatives U.S. Senate U.S. Senators