Political deanship. Iowa's senior democrat Senator Tom Harkin leads and mentors. A conversation with Senator Harkin on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Senator Tom Harkin's name is on at least two of the nation's landmark laws, or at least one and probably another very soon. He's credited already with leading the Americans with Disabilities Act providing accommodations to those people needing those considerations to be productive Americans. And currently chairing the Senate's subcommittee funding education, Senator Harkin is leading the reauthorization of the education law known as No Child Left Behind, modifying the law to fit what has been learned since the law was first enacted during the George W. Bush administration. But in the past month Senator Harkin turned 72 years old. He's been around Congress since 1969 serving first on Congressman Neil Smith's staff, elected to the House of Representatives in 1974 serving ten years in the House representing southwest Iowa before moving to the U.S. Senate in 1984. Senator Harkin, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Harkin: Always good to be back, Dean.
Borg: You've been on the program several times since you were first elected as a representative. Nice to have you back.
Harkin: It's nice to be back. Thank you.
Borg: And across the Iowa Press table two familiar faces, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Senator, let's turn to some things that appear to be moving towards fruition in Congress. There appears to be a compromise in the works on an extension of the payroll tax and what appears to be a compromise in the works on the extension of unemployment benefits. What has happened to drive these compromises after months of political partisan bickering?
Harkin: Well, Mike, I think people have come to the realization that with the high rate of unemployment that we still have that this would be the worst time to cut off unemployment benefits for people. As we've just noticed this week the unemployment figures are coming down, we're getting some more jobs, there's some job growth, it's slow but it is moving in the right direction. And so now is not the time to pull the plug on that. And secondly, they used to do the payroll tax benefit cut in payroll tax last year at two percent and again now is not the time to increase taxes on hardworking Americans by $1500 a year. So, I think there's the realization that we have to do these before we go home for Christmas.
Glover: And how do you contrast that with the failure of the super committee which in seeking some kind of a debt reduction compromise came to absolute gridlock? We do we have gridlock there and suddenly consensus here?
Harkin: Well, I think the super committee working at something going out ten years. Obviously this we're just looking at next year. We're talking about unemployment insurance and the payroll tax deduction. That is just for next year. A lot easier to do that than it is to do something for ten years out. So, that is how I contrast it. There's much more at stake in the super committee in terms of the amount of money involved and quite frankly I think that the reason the super committee did not come to any agreement was, if I can be frank about it, is that the democrats put spending cuts on the line where we were willing to cut spending but the republicans simply would not budge on revenues over a longer period of time and that was the gridlock and that just broke it apart.
Glover: Is the country better off because they couldn't come to an agreement?
Harkin: Well, let me rephrase that. It wasn't Armageddon because they didn't reach an agreement. The country didn't fall, the sky didn't come down and I think now we're confronted with the sequestration but that doesn't go into effect until January of 2013 and quite frankly I think next year the electorate now gets to tell us what they'd like us to do and I think this is good. Wouldn't you like to see a presidential campaign based on issues rather than just personalities and things like that? So here's the issue. We have the Bush tax cuts expiring at the end of next year. We have this cut in defense spending and cut in domestic spending by huge amounts in January of 2013. So, what are we going to do? Do we continue on with the Bush tax cuts? Or do we raise some revenues by closing some of the loopholes, by raising revenues from those who are in the upper incomes and then have some spending cuts? Or are we all just going to have all spending cuts and not raise any more revenues? I think this is a clear cut choice for the electorate to decide next year.
Henderson: Some of the choices that have been on the table in regards to the payroll tax extension which we have been discussing previously have been tax increases and how to make adjustments to, in the words of Washington, pay for it. In other words, extend this tax break to people and come up with corresponding cuts in federal spending. How is this package going to come together? Will there indeed be some other components just beyond extending the payroll tax cut?
Harkin: We are looking at offsets and that is what is under discussion right now. It is clear that the offer by the republicans just this week, this past week to cut 200,000 people off of the federal payroll is not going to fly. Here we were just making slow growth in getting employment back up and we're going to cut 200,000 people out right now? So, that's not a good offset, that's not going to work. There are other offsets that we can look at. There are spending cuts that we can make that won't be devastating that can fill in for the unemployment insurance and also for the payroll tax cut.
Henderson: There are some Iowa officials, Congressman Braley, Governor Branstad, people of two different parties who would like to see other components added to that package and specifically the wind energy tax credit which is set to expire at the end of 2012. They would like that included now to give some consistency to the industry and some ability of people to make an investment.
Harkin: Some of those might be included in this year-end package that is going to happen in the next couple of weeks, by the way. There's nothing like Christmas to focus Congress' attention on getting something done. Remind you, the healthcare bill passed on Christmas Eve. Like I say, Christmas always focuses our attention. Some of that might be included, Kay, but I think that most of these, they call them tax extenders, wind energy tax credits and all kinds of things like that, the ethanol tax credit, all of those things are going to be in a package next year. That's why I say next year we're going to have some serious debates in congressional races, the presidential race about which way we're going to go on the Bush tax cuts, the very things you're talking about, are we going to extend the energy tax credit, things like that, clean energy tax credits. Or do we let those fall? That's all in a package that I think Congress will be, mark my word, Congress will be working on this after the election next year.
Borg: I want to take you back to what you said earlier about the unemployment report that came out on Friday, down to 8.6% and you said moving in the right direction. Yes it is moving down but it wasn't as big a drop as had been anticipated and also ...
Harkin: That's true.
Borg: ... that drop because the workforce contracted people just gave up looking for work. So, those two things. So, is it really good news?
Harkin: Well, it's better news, okay. Things are getting better. Are we out of the woods yet? I don't think so, Dean. We still have too many people unemployed but the trend is in the right direction. I mean, at least we're not shedding jobs, we're getting some. You're right about the long-term unemployment. There are a lot of people out there not counted in that 8.6% because they're just giving up looking for work. So, we know that the 8.6% is really higher than that. Quite frankly, I think the realistic unemployment figures are probably around double that, pretty close to 16%. Nonetheless, the employment figures, people coming back to work, are moving in the right direction, slowly, more slowly than we had hoped but the European thing is also impinging on us right now, what is happening in Europe is impinging on us right now. So, we're not out of the woods yet.
Borg: As we bring people back also from Afghanistan and Iraq those people need jobs also. That is going to increase the workforce out of work.
Harkin: Exactly, right and that is why in looking ahead I have argued for a balanced approach. We need to raise revenues and we have places to go for revenues. The IRS said that in 2007 the top one-tenth of one percent, the top one-tenth of one percent income earners in America, people who make over $2 million a year took home $1 trillion in one year. Now, don't tell me they can't afford to pay a little bit more into the coffers. Taking some of those revenues and put it into infrastructure or doing things like energy tax credits so that we're building more wind energy systems or credits to businesses which President Obama, by the way, just this last week also came out with for more energy efficient buildings, for insulating buildings, putting in new doors and new windows. The cheapest barrel of oil is still the barrel of oil you don't use and we can put a lot of people to work in this country just modernizing old buildings and making them more energy efficient.
Glover: One of the things you're committee is working on is an overhaul of the educational law known as No Child Left Behind. Is it inevitable that a revision of No Child Left Behind will win congressional approval? And what will it look like? What is the biggest change you're going to make?
Harkin: Well, yes, we're going to change No Child Left Behind because we have to. The bill that I have gotten we put it out and it is a bipartisan bill, I got it through our committee, took me two years but I got it done. We got a bipartisan bill and now the House has got to act and we aren’t going to do anything until the House does something so that we can get together with the House. But No Child Left Behind, the fault of No Child Left Behind is we tried to do too much with too little and it was punitive in nature. So, we've done away with No Child Left Behind in our bill. We focused our federal monies on the bottom 5% of the lowest performing schools plus the 5% of the schools that have the highest achievement gaps and the 12% of the schools that account for 50% of the dropouts in secondary schools. So, we're taking the formula and focusing it more narrowly, building a new partnership with the states for accountability on the states, we've put incentives, not punitive but we put in incentives for states to have teacher and principal evaluation systems. And the good things that were in No Child Left Behind we enhanced and the good things about No Child Left Behind was the documentation, what am I trying to say, the data, knowing what was happening to kids with disabilities, knowing what was happening to kids with English language learning skills, knowing what was happening to poor kids, making sure we had the data so we knew what was happening to them. We have kept that in there and made it stronger so that parents, parents now know what is happening to their children in school.
Glover: So, at the end of the day when you pass legislation will it be legislation that people will notice or make a difference in people's lives?
Harkin: Oh, I believe so. Absolutely.
Glover: How so?
Harkin: Well, first of all we've got provision in the elementary and secondary education act that will enhance teacher training, principal training, accountability. Certain schools now are going to get more money. We're going to focus on those lowest five percent schools. We're working with the states on accountability but also on closing a loophole in the law that allows some of the wealthier schools to actually get more money than poorer schools, kind of a loophole, we have closed that loophole. So, yes, I think as soon as this law passes and the President signs it I think within a year you're going to see some real changes in where federal money is going and what it is going for in elementary and secondary education. No longer are we going to have these annual, yearly progress reports that if you don't make it you get slapped on the wrist, you get money taken away from you. That's not going to happen anymore.
Henderson: Folks in America's farm community thought they might see the outlines of the farm bill emerge from that super committee. What is going to happen in regards to farm subsidies in the coming year as the farm bill needs to be written and in particular, the large component of that bill that involves feeding programs, nutrition, food stamps?
Harkin: Well, as far as the nutrition programs go, I mean, as you know we have had an increase in the use of free to reduced even here in Iowa, true nationwide simply because as we talk people are out of work or if they are not out of work they are taking lower paid jobs therefore they're qualifying for reduced price or free lunches, free meals. So, that we have to protect. I did too, I thought maybe on ag committee, I'm no longer chair but I'm obviously still on it, I thought we were going to have the outlines of a bill coming out of the super committee. That didn't happen. But I believe we agreed, republicans and democrats agreed on the Senate Agriculture Committee to a set of proposals that I believe now we can move forward with as an ag bill rather than just part of the super committee and it includes some changes. The direct payment program is going, thank goodness. We're going to focus more on crop insurance on a new acre program that we have for support and I'm pleased to report that our conservation programs held. We're not going to cut our conservation programs. And we're going to continue the fresh fruit and vegetable program for our schools too.
Glover: Part of the news in Iowa throughout this year has been flooding along the Missouri River. It was an enormous story and caused enormous damage. Are you satisfied with the response of the Army Corp of Engineers to that flood disaster?
Harkin: Mike, I'm satisfied that the Corp of Engineers followed their master manual, they did.
Glover: That's a different answer.
Harkin: Well, I know. They followed the master manual. They did what they should but they did not anticipate a flood that was bigger than anything in history, bigger than anything that had ever happened. So, as we've looked at the master manual and I've had my staff look at it, it is clear that it needs to be updated. So, that is what I'm trying to push the Army Corp now to get in, redo that master manual and also reduce the level in the reservoirs upstream, get their level down more than what they have in the past. Being careful, however, that we need electrogeneration, we can't reduce it so far that we cut out electrogeneration and increase electricity costs for people in western Iowa. And secondly, navigation. You need navigation on that river too. So, those things all have to be taken into account. But I do believe the corp could reduce the level of the reservoirs appreciably this next spring.
Glover: Could this flood have been prevented by doing that? Had they kept their reservoir levels lower would it have prevented much of the damage?
Harkin: Oh, sure if you had a crystal ball and you could see in the future. I mean, if ...
Glover: Aren't people like the Corp of Engineers supposed to be able to anticipate this kind of stuff?
Harkin: Well, if it had been a relatively normal year or even a flood year within the confines of the floods of the last fifty or sixty year it would have been okay but this was beyond that.
Borg: They didn't have enough discussion or going by the book then, is that what you're saying?
Harkin: Well, no. They just did not anticipate a flood in the lateness of those rains that happened. I will say this, that in my limited knowledge of this, by the way, I'm not an expert in this area, but from looking at the master manual and looking at climate patterns, I've had a number of meetings with the Corp of Engineers about this. It is clear that over the last twenty some years things have changed. We're getting more flooding. Also, I would submit this, Dean, that over the last thirty years or so we have more intense cropping in the upstream areas than we ever had before. We had grasslands up there, we had pasture lands. Because of the warming climates we're getting and new strains of corn, new hybrids we're getting corn and beans and row crops and so a lot of that water is running off faster than it ever did in the past.
Henderson: This past week Governor Branstad accepted a $7 million grant from the federal government to set up one of these state level insurance exchanges. That is part of the healthcare reform law. He is also part of a lawsuit that is seeking to declare that law unconstitutional. Are you concerned that these insurance exchanges being established in all 50 states may not actually come to pass because of the uncertainty with the law until the Supreme Court rules?
Harkin: Well, as the chair of the health committee I am pleased that the state of Iowa, as I understand it, is moving ahead with that money to go ahead and set up the outlines of exchanges. That is my understanding anyway and I am very encouraged by that. I still believe the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the exchanges and that provision, the provision, the mandate that you have to have coverage, I believe that will hold. And so I think we would be remiss if we didn't start setting up those exchanges so I'm glad to see that Iowa is moving ahead in that direction.
Borg: Who do you think is going to be the republican nominee? It looks like the democrats think it is going to be George Romney. Do you?
Harkin: Well, I don't know. If I knew that ...
Borg: Well, none of us do.
Harkin: If I knew that I'd probably go to Las Vegas tomorrow or something.
Henderson: Senator, you had some interesting things to say about the perceived front runner right now, Newt Gingrich. You said he would be a heaven sent nominee.
Harkin: Did I say that?
Henderson: You did.
Harkin: Oh, I did say that. Well ...
Borg: Why did you say that?
Harkin: Well, I said, look, I've known Newt Gingrich since he came to the House of Representatives and I remember him from my term in the House and he's just very undisciplined. As I can tell you from first time experience you have to be disciplined when you run for president and perhaps I wasn't so disciplined when I ran.
Borg: Do you think he's going to be the nominee or do you think it is going to be George Romney or somebody else?
Harkin: Gee, I don't know. I mean, look ...
Borg: Will the democrats rise then in running commercials now on George Romney's record? I'm saying George and it is Mitt Romney, I'm sorry.
Harkin: Oh, Mitt Romney, I didn't know they were running -- are some democrats running?
Borg: George is his father.
Harkin: You're right, that dates us doesn't it, Dean? Look, here's what I think. I think if the republicans were really smart they would run John Huntsman, that's not going to happen. What I think is going to happen is that they'll get a nominee, I don't know whether it is going to be Newt or Mitt Romney, it doesn't look like Herman Cain is going to make it now. It could be one of those two. But I believe that Barack Obama running on two things, his record, the fact that he is -- when he came in we were shedding 700,000 jobs a month, we're now adding jobs every month. We passed the Fair Pay Act for women that we could never pass before. We put new controls on the credit card industry. He saved the auto industry in America. I mean, the healthcare bill, I know there's a lot of contention on it but, believe me, it's working out for a lot of elderly people in America and then compare Barack Obama, what he wants to do for the future compared to what the republicans want. Everything I hear from republicans is we want to go back to doing what got us into this mess in the first place.
Glover: So, you're pretty optimistic on Obama's re-election chances?
Harkin: I'm very optimistic. As Joe Biden said, don't compare him to the almighty, compare him to the alternative.
Henderson: What impact has the Occupy Wall Street movement had on the debate in Washington? And do you think they are a boon or a hindrance to democrats in 2012?
Harkin: Well, I think these occupy movements have been good. They are exercising their constitutional rights and I think they have given out a voice to the other 99% who aren't coming out and doing things, that aren't demonstrating. I think it has focused a lot of public attention. I just hope now that they will transform that into more positive actions. I've heard some rumors that they might do occupy the caucuses and things like that. That would be wrong. If they really want to make changes they should now take their energies out and get people to come to the caucuses. That is what they should be doing, help get people out to the Iowa caucuses.
Glover: We've got way too many questions and way too little time. I'd like to go to something you said the last time you were out here. You said the political mood was so sour for democrats you were glad you weren't on the ballot. Is the political mood this time sour for democrats or is the political mood improving for democrats?
Harkin: I think the political mood is improving for democrats. I think, again, here's how I see it -- in 2010 the pendulum swung all one way and I think now people are looking at what the republicans have been doing in the House of Representatives, the policies they have put forward, that they just won't even meet President Obama halfway, that they are very uncompromising and that's the spirit of politics and government is compromising. So, I think the pendulum is coming back and I think this election next time is going to be a lot different than it was two years ago.
Henderson: If that's the case why do folks like Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman say, I'm just not going to run for re-election?
Harkin: Well, I don't know. I can't speak for Barney Frank. I just read what I read about him. Again, his district got changed and he might have faced a primary opponent that might have been tough for him. I don't know. Whether there's other reasons or not I don't know.
Glover: It wouldn't be an official Iowa Press show if we didn't ask a little speculation going forward. You're up in a couple of years. You're 72. What is your future? Are you planning on running for another term?
Harkin: I knew you were going to ask that question. So, I thought about it and I said, you know, I have not decided what I'm going to do in 2020 yet.
Glover: So that means 2014 you're running again?
Harkin: Well, look, I feel good. God has been good to me in terms of my health. I feel very good. Contrary to what my political opponents say I think my mental faculties are still pretty good. I love my job. I like my work. I think there's a lot of challenges confronting us. I love my committee work on education and health.
Glover: So you're running?
Harkin: I beg your pardon?
Glover: You're running?
Harkin: Look, that's to be determined some other time. Some other time.
Borg: We'll ask you back soon but we're out of time right now.
Harkin: Thanks, Dean.
Borg: Thanks so much. On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll be talking with Iowa State University President Greg Geoffroy getting his perspective on a decade long tenure at the helm in Ames. Outgoing ISU President Greg Geoffroy at the usual Iowa Press airtimes 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning.
Borg: And before we go, we want to pause and reflect on the passing of a dear friend and colleague here at Iowa Public Television.
Iowa Press lost its leader this week when longtime coordinating producer Mike Newell passed away. For the past 20 years Mike's hands were at the helm of this program steering a steady course through the sometimes murky waters of public policy and politics. While you never heard his voice on Iowa Press, he was undoubtedly the heart and soul of this program and as host I'll personally miss his editorial expertise. In a world of instant messaging and digital media, Mike was decidedly old school, a consummate journalist who preferred personal communication rather than e-mail and who found little use for a computer when a perfectly good typewriter would suffice. Mike was a teacher and a lifelong student of mass media communication, a noted film buff who was well versed in the history of radio, film and television.
Good evening, I'm Mike Newell and welcome once again to The Golden Years of Television.
Journalism was his passion but he was also well acquainted with athletics and as a play-by-play announcer Mike covered all kinds of interscholastic, collegiate and professional sports ... and even the occasional lumberjack competition. While he was serious about journalism he never took himself seriously.
A little bit of everything down through the years. I've been doing features for Iowa Public Television and have been coming to the Fair since before Bill Riley started shaving, way back when.
Well known for donning the occasional plaid sport coat, Mike loved a good joke and was a master of clichés. Those of us who knew him know what I mean. Everyone at Iowa Public Television extends our deepest sympathies to Mike's dear wife, Chris, his two beloved daughters and the rest of his family.