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U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Cumming)

posted on February 1, 2013

Turning a page.  Tom Harkin choosing personal time instead of another term in the United States Senate.  A conversation with Iowa democratic Senator Tom Harkin on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: In another couple of years, Tom Harkin will be marking 40 years in Congress, 10 years in the House of Representatives, 30 years in the Senate.  But, surprising everyone, except maybe his wife Ruth last weekend, Senator Harkin says he won't be campaigning for a sixth term in the Senate.  Announcing that decision, Senator Harkin says at age 75 when his term ends he is keeping a promise to Ruth and himself to devote time to some things the couple wants to do, as his announcement phrased it, before it is too late.  Correctly adding, though, he is not intending to entirely retire from public life but wants to make room right now in the Senate seat where he now holds considerable seniority for Iowa, seventh most senior in the entire Senate, fourth most senior among the majority democrats.  And he holds a lot of seniority here in the Iowa Press guest chair.  Welcome back, Senator Harkin

Harkin: It's good to be back, Dean.  Thanks.

Borg: And I want to make clear this is not an exit interview.  You have two years left.

Harkin: This is not a legacy interview, I hope not.  I've got two more years.  I keep saying, Dean, two years is a life for a congressman.  When I was in the House you had a two year life, you had two years and then if you got re-elected you had another two years so I have a congressman's life for the next two years.

Borg: Well, two people who write regularly about you, Kathie Obradovich, Des Moines Register's Political Columnist and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Senator Harkin, why now?  Why did you make this decision?

Harkin: Well, Kay, as I said, because I just felt it was time.  I must admit this was not an easy decision.  As Dean said, I have a lot of seniority, I have a great committee that I am chair of, my health is great, I love the Senate, I really do.  You won't hear me bashing the Senate going out.  I love it.  With all of its problems and everything it is still one of the great places on Earth where ideas can be clashed and agreements can be hammered out.  But I just felt, as I said, it is true, Ruth and I had made some promises to one another and stuff to do certain things and live in a way that we have not been able to do.  And because we're both healthy I just thought, you know, it just seems like the time that I should step aside and it's somebody else's turn.  After 40 years it is somebody else's turn.  That's all I can say.

Henderson: You also told many of us who interviewed you last Saturday that there would be a cascading effect and indeed there has been.  Is this healthy for your party to have a primary for your seat?  And has this also created a problem for your party because not only will there be a U.S. Senate race that they have to run with money but they also have a governor's race the next time around.

Harkin: Well, no, I don't think it's a problem.  I think it is healthy.  As someone pointed out, I hadn't really thought about it but we haven't had an open Senate seat since 1974 in Iowa.  Incumbents always have the advantage, let's be honest about it.  So with an open seat I think democrats are going to be more active and certainly republicans are going to be more active.  So I just think it's healthy.

Obradovich: Congressman Bruce Braley has indicated that he is interested in at least considering running for your seat.  Is he the heir apparent?

Harkin: Well, I don't know if he is the heir apparent, Kathie.  I just think that he has been very active, he's a very smart guy.  I talked to him.  I encouraged him to run.  I'm not anointing anyone but I think he has shown that he has a wherewithal to organize a campaign.  I know he has already reached out to, or the democratic senate campaign committee has reached out to him on this.  There may be others.  But I have known Bruce Braley since he was an Iowa State student and he has done a lot of good.  I can tell you, as a veteran myself, I can tell you that with the work that he has done for veterans has been phenomenal.

Obradovich: So you're not anointing anyone.  But why not get involved in helping to shape this primary?

Harkin: Well, I mean, look, I'm going to be active and I'm going to, I assume, support the nominee of our party unless it is somebody that I can't philosophically agree with.  So I will actively support the candidate that democrats choose but I'm not about to tell democrats who they've got to choose.

Henderson: One of the questions I've been getting all week from people who have been following this story is, what is he going to do with the $3 million he has in his campaign war chest?

Harkin: And I have to be honest with you, Kay, I don't know.  I have asked my campaign people to find out what -- I don't even know what I can do with it.  I'm sure there are certain ethics rules and certain guidance things like that but sitting here I just don't know.

Henderson: What is your inclination?

Harkin: Well, I don't know until I find out what the parameters are.

Obradovich: If you find out that it is legal for you to give it to the Harkin Institute is that something that you would consider?

Harkin: Sure, if that is legal and ethical and stuff.  I don't know the answer to that either.

Obradovich: Speaking of the Harkin Institute, are you satisfied at this stage with where Iowa State is with regard to your concerns that you have raised about academic freedom?

Harkin: The one statement that I put out on this in December, I said, look, I have always tried to do the best for my alma mater and I think my record shows that.  Through all my years in the House and the Senate and on the appropriations committee I have done a lot for my alma mater.  I love Iowa State.  My two brothers and I both went there.  I love land grant colleges.  But as I said, I feel I have an obligation not to leave my papers anywhere where there would be restrictions on it, on my papers or on the research that could be done with them.  I want full, unfettered academic freedom for my papers.  To this extent, that has not been forthcoming from the president of Iowa State.

Obradovich: So you're still not satisfied with -- the president had come a little bit your way in saying that they would be --

Harkin: Let me be very clear about this, there's only one thing that I have ever asked for my papers and that this institute, to which I was going to give my papers, have full, unfettered academic freedom.  We have a lot of institutes at Iowa State and no other institute has some kind of parameters or some kind of range put on it.  And why would this be different?

Henderson: You just spoke in the past tense where I was going to give my papers. Are you rethinking this decision?

Harkin: I just said, let's back up, I did not go to Iowa State to ask for this.  They came to me a couple of years ago with a proposal to set up an institute if I would contribute my papers to that.  Well, I thought, that sounds like a pretty good idea, it is my alma mater, obviously I've done a lot in 40 years and I think it's going to be a treasure trove for researchers and students and academics in the future.  And so I said I would do that.  But I just want to make sure, again, as I said, that there aren't some kind of restrictions put on it.  See I've always believed that a university should have divergent views.  That is why we go to universities, to learn different things.  Maybe they say this, maybe they say that but you get different views.  That is the intellectual challenges of a university.  But to say that somehow this institute has to do certain things according to something else and certain structures are put around it, orthodox, a university is the last place for orthodoxy.

Borg: Kay and Kathie have both asked this and I'm going to be trying to pin it down.  Are you still working with Iowa State then?  You're not quite satisfied with the arrangement right now?  Because just a little bit earlier when you talked about that $3 million in campaign funds you said you would consider giving that to the Harkin Institute.  But now you come and you're a little bit ambivalent about the status of the Harkin Institute.  Are you still reserving judgment on that?

Harkin: Well, Dean, as I said, there's an advisory board for this institute.  I'm sure they're going to be making some decisions, I don't know what.  I met with that advisory board I think in November, December, maybe.  I forget when it was, November, December.  I met with the advisory board.  That is when I issued that statement.  I said to the advisory board, I said, I can not in conscious leave my papers to any place unless it has full, unfettered academic freedom without restrictions on those papers and on the institute.  And so I haven't seen that yet.  The president of Iowa State keeps coming out with one thing and then another thing then another thing but I have set down the parameters.  I just can't leave it to some institute that is going to have some kind of political reigns put on it.  This was never meant to be any kind of a political institution whatsoever.

Borg: Does that have to be decided in the next couple of years?  Or are you putting a timeline on this?

Harkin: Well, I don't know.  I hope it is decided pretty soon.  I have been wanting to start delivering my papers.  See, we have a 20 year rule in the Senate, in the House I'm not certain, but in the Senate we have a 20 year rule that documents and papers that are, I wouldn't say personal, but that are part of my files and part of the Senate proceedings, that you can only release those for public perusal or for looking at only after 20 years.  Well one of the things that I really wanted to get started on was all of the debate and all of the work that we did on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was my bill.  And, of course, 20 years have passed now since that and I thought this might be a really good way to start this by having people look at it and start to understand how this came about.

Obradovich: Are you still talking, Senator, with other institutions that might be interested in hosting the Harkin Institute?  Are you still talking with other institutions?

Harkin: Well, I think it has been reported that I did speak with the president of Drake University about this and some others that are associated with Drake University.  Nothing came from that other than a meeting.

Obradovich: How likely would you say at this point that the Harkin Institute could go somewhere else besides Iowa State?

Harkin: Well, I think that's really up to Iowa State.

Obradovich: It's up to you ultimately to decide how long you're going to wait for them to come your way.

Harkin: Well, all I can control are my papers.  This is my property, this is my life.  I just want to make sure that whoever gets these has a deep understanding that I want unfettered access and be able to have people research and have people that if it is associated with an institute that this institute doesn't have to follow some orthodoxy that somebody lays down.  It should be able to be vibrant and full and challenge ideas and common things.  That is what I want.

Borg: Senator, we could go on talking on this but we're going to take up too much time.  But I want to take you back to when you were first on this Iowa Press program back in 1985 just after, it was March 1985, you had just been elected to the U.S. Senate.  Let's take a look.

Iowa Press – March 3, 1985 - Senator Tom Harkin: I, as you know John, I’m a populist and I’m trying to move the democratic party towards a more populist type of an approach to things rather than right wing or left wing.

Iowa Press – March 3, 1985 – Senator Tom Harkin: No, I’m not for big government, I never have been for big government.  But I do believe in a strong government, a strong government that really protects the rights of those at the bottom.

Iowa Press – March 3, 1985 – Senator Tom Harkin: The reason Ronald Reagan got to be President in 1980 was because he attacked.  He attacked and he attacked and he attacked and he attacked and he never let up.  And I’ll tell you, the American people like a fighter.  You don’t win a war by defending yourself.  You don’t win a football game by defending the goal.  You don’t win a basketball by defending yourself.  You only win when you attack.  And I think what we want to –

Iowa Press - March 3, 1985: That’s the way you won a Senate race isn’t it?

Iowa Press – March 3, 1985 – Senator Tom Harkin: That’s right.  And the way you do it is you attack the philosophical basis of Reaganism.  And I think if you do that the American people will listen. 

Borg: You remember that was John McCormally who was a panelist on the program at that time who was asking the questions there.  But I want to get back to that, several philosophies there, but attack, attack, attack.  Is that what we're seeing too much of now in the Congress that is really causing an impasse?

Harkin: Well, it can be carried too far.  But I think a lot of the attacks have been personal.  Mind you, I said attack the philosophical basis, the underpinnings of why people want to do certain things.  I think too much of the attack lately, that I've seen in the last few years, has been more towards the personal side saying that because someone doesn't agree with you they're not American, they are foreign, they have a foreign sounding name, all those kinds of little things like that, that go to the personal side.  I've never taken -- first of all, I've never taken anything personal when anyone attacks me and I've never, I have always tried to make sure that I don't attack anyone personally.  I will go after their ideas and what they stand for, sure.

Borg: Is that one reason you're getting out?

Harkin: No, no, not really, Dean, no it's not.  Have I had some frustrations in the Senate because of the rules and stuff?  Well, you all know that is true.  But that's internal.  As I said, it's still a wonderful place and no, I'm not getting out because of that.  That has nothing, no.

Obradovich: It seems like you have always enjoyed the fight.  Is there something about the Senate that you will not miss?

Harkin: Is there something about it that I will not miss?

Obradovich: Yeah, what will you miss the least?

Harkin: The constant fundraising for office, getting on the phone all the time and raising money, that money chase that is out there all the time.  I'm not going to miss that, I can tell you that.  And just some of the scheduling items and how votes are scheduled, things like that, where you really have a tough time planning your schedule.  But these are little things that have come up.  I'm hopeful that the Senate will return more to debate and discussions.  I used to have great debates, Kathie, on the Senate floor with Phil Graham from Texas.  We used to have some great debates and we would stand there and go back and forth, back and forth and I miss that.  We don't do that anymore.  And I liked Phil Graham and I think he kind of liked me but we had good philosophical debates and we just don't see that anymore.

Henderson: Senator, I'm wondering, you mentioned the Americans with Disabilities Act a few minutes ago.  Do you think the atmosphere is such that today that kind of bipartisan legislation could be crafted and passed and signed into law by a president of a different party?

Harkin: Boy, it would be very tough.  I don't know.  I've often said that if we brought up the Americans with Disabilities Act today it probably wouldn't pass.  I'll give you a case.  We -- it would be almost ten years ago.  The United Nations decided that they were going to promulgate a convention on the rights of people with disabilities.  They came to us, not the whole UN but whoever their little party was that was starting to do this.  How did we develop ours?  What did ours do?   How did we change our laws?  So my staff worked with them way back in the beginning.  They then, over the course of the next several years, worked to develop a convention, a treaty on the rights of people with disabilities which is modeled after ours because we are the best in the world.  Well then when it came to us for ratification under our system the president then sends it out to his departments, Department of Justice, Department of this, Department of that to see if there is any conflicts between the treaty and what our laws are.  Came back, nothing.  I mean, there was no conflicts.  Why?  Because we're the best in the world on this.  We just brought it to the Senate in December.  John Kerry got it through his committee.  Do you know who the two lead off witnesses were for Kerry?  John McCain and me.  We had republicans lined up there from the Bush administration, the first Bush administration, former Attorney General Thornburgh, republican, Boyden Gray, it was a bipartisan approach.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: Speaking of bipartisan approach -

Harkin: I just want to say when we brought that to the Senate floor republicans voted no and it kept us from, because they filibustered it we didn't have the 67 votes, we needed 67 votes for a treaty and we didn't have it.  I will tell you this, we're going to bring it up again.  We're going to bring it up again probably in the next month or so and hopefully, hopefully, hopefully we'll get them to vote for it.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: Senator, you mentioned in your video clip that you're not for big government, you're for strong government.  Some of the votes coming up in the next few months on the budget, the fiscal cliffs, plural, are really going to probably decide the size of government, at least for the short-term and maybe for a very long time to come.  So far you have voted against some of the fiscal cliff bills that we've had.  What are your concerns about the size of government going forward as a result of this budget issue?

Harkin: Well, again, I'm not so concerned about the size of government, but what is government doing.  What is government doing to ensure that children have good health care in the dawn of life, what is happening to that, how we make sure that people who are near the poverty line and below get good health care in our country.  That is the Affordable Care Act.  How do we do that?  And there are ways of doing it that are effective and efficient and actually will cost us less money.

Obradovich: Do you see any way that you get to summertime even without serious budget cuts that eat into some of the programs you’re concerned about?

Harkin: Well, I'm not saying that we can't cut some spending.  There's some spending that can be cut.  But in a recession, any recession, which we're still in by the way, I mean we're just trying to come out of that recession.  Unemployment is still unacceptably high.

Borg: 7.9%.

Harkin: 7.9%, Dean.  And actually a little higher than that if you count it correctly.  That is the Bureau of Labor Statistics figure.  It's actually much higher than that when you look at those that have quit looking for work, that have given up, those that are marginally employed but want to be full-time employed it is really much higher than that.  So that is the wrong time for the government to cut back on its spending or things that we can do.

Borg: But the size of government is contracting.  In fact, the number of government workers is contracting quite appreciably in those Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.  But I'm wondering, you said attack, attack, attack remember in that video.  Has that been used quite effectively by those who would want to restrict the power of government unions in attacking, attacking, attacking and taking away some of that power?

Harkin: Oh sure, sure.

Borg: What is the remedy there?  Or is that the good thing in limiting that power and limiting the size of government?

Harkin: Well, I'm a little confused by your question.  I'm sorry, Dean.  Are you saying that they have been attacking labor unions?

Borg: Yes.

Harkin: Attacking the right of people to organize and bargain collectively?

Borg: Yes.

Harkin: Yes, and I think that is wrong.  And I have not gone along with that.  I have fought back on that.  I have attacked those who are trying to restrict the right of people to organize and bargain collectively.  Quite frankly --

Borg: But it is holding down the cost of government, isn't it?  When government workers are unable to bargain collectively but very strongly then the cost of government, the proponents say, we could reduce the cost of government by not inflating wages.

Harkin: And what happens is you get ineffective government because you get people, the more you drive down the wages of people who work for government, the less qualified and good people you're going to get there.  You want people there that are committed, that are dedicated public servants.  Is this a race to the bottom to see how low we can drive government workers in our country?  Is that what we're about?  No.  I think government service is a good thing.  I want to elevate government workers.  I want to make public service something that people aspire to, that is good for our country, not to be banging government workers on the head day after day and trying to take away their livelihood.  What good does that do us?  That destroys the very essence of government.

Henderson: Let's talk about another race, 2016.  Your wife, Ruth Harkin, endorsed and campaigned with Hillary Clinton when she ran for president before.  Are you encouraging Senator/Secretary Clinton to run?

Harkin: Well, I've had nice conversations with her.  I think she deserves a well deserved rest but really this is up to her what she decides to do.  I can tell you I have the highest respect for Hillary Clinton.  I think she did a superb job as secretary, our foreign affairs secretary.  She was a member of our committee when she was in the Senate for eight years, a great committee member.  She studied hard, did all of her homework.  I have a great deal of respect and fondness for Hillary Clinton.

Obradovich: What about Vice President Joe Biden?  Is he somebody that you would also, somebody you would consider to run?

Harkin: And I like Joe Biden too.  I mean, he has been a great friend of mine for all these years.  One of the reason I didn't get in front and endorse in 2008 was because, gosh, we had Joe Biden running, we had Chris Dodd running, we had Hillary Clinton running, we had Barack Obama.  These are al friends of mine so I said, I'm not going to get involved in that.  But my wife has always been very close to Hillary and so obviously she supported Hillary Clinton.

Henderson: When you announced that you were not running you cited your age.  You said, you're 73 now, you'd be 75 when you run.  Is Joe Biden too old to run for president?  And what about those twelve senators who are older than you are right now?  Should they think twice about running again?

Harkin: This is only my decision, Kay.  It's for me.  This is the right thing for me to do.  People can stay there if they are older and stuff.  That is their own decision to make.

Borg: You're very diplomatic in that.  Let me ask, you said you wanted to still be involved in public life.  What does that mean?

Harkin: Well, first of all, the next two years.  I've got a full plate for the next two years.  I've got the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that I want to get more funding for early childhood education. The Higher Education Act I've got to do next year to make college more affordable for kids.  I've got a new retirement program I just mentioned I want to come out with.  I've got employment of people with disabilities, the Affordable Care Act that comes through my committee.  I mean, I've got a lot of stuff I want to do in the next two years.

Obradovich: Senator, for the last couple of weeks the press has been writing about your retirement and for you it must be a little bit like reading your obituary while you're still alive.  What would you like to change about what has been said about your service so far while you still have a chance?

Harkin: As I said, I hope this is not a valedictory today or anything like that.  I still have two more years.  I mean, I've got a lot of things more that I want to do in two years.

Obradovich: And how would you like to change how people remember you while you still are serving?

Harkin: Well, I don't know.  Let's talk about that two years from now.  Invite me back two years from now and we'll discuss that.  And beyond that, what am I going to do beyond that, Dean?  I don't know.  But I'm not going to go sit down some place.  I've got too much energy for that.  I want to find a new outlet.  I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing.  I can tell you it will be involved in some form of public affairs.  I think it will probably have a lot to do with disabilities, if we can get the convention passed in the Senate.  In fact, I had a long conversation with President Clinton about this and his global initiative and the fact that it is doing a lot of good stuff.  But I said to him, I said, you're missing something, that global initiative needs to start looking at employment of people with disabilities around the world.

Borg: I'm going to have to save that for when we have you back, and we will.  Thank you for being with us today.

Harkin: Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press the new party chair for the Iowa Democratic Party Tyler Olson and Republican State Chair A.J. Spiker.  Olson and Spiker, usual times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


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