Sen. Tom Harkin (D)
Elected: 1984, term expires 2014, 5th term.
Born: Nov. 19, 1939, Cumming .
Education: IA St. U., B.S. 1962, Catholic U., J.D. 1972.
Family: Married (Ruth); 2 children.
Military career: Navy, 1962–67; Naval Reserves, 1969–72.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1974–84.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1972–74; Staff aide, House Select Cmte. on U.S. Involvement in SE Asia, 1973–74.
Tom Harkin, a Democrat first elected to the House in 1974 and the Senate in 1984, is an accomplished veteran of Capitol Hill who brings the attitude of the aggrieved outsider to his work. Harkin grew up poor in a rural town where his father was a coal miner and his mother, a Slovenian immigrant, died when he was just 10. He worked his way through college and law school before spending five years in the Navy during the 1960s ferrying planes out of Vietnam for repair. In 1970, as an aide to Democratic Rep. Neal Smith of Iowa, Harkin returned to Vietnam and discovered the infamous “tiger cages.” America’s allies, the South Vietnamese, used these underground cells to hold and torture prisoners of war. (A young Harkin slipped past prison guards on a guided tour to confirm the existence of the secret cells.) Two years later, Harkin ran for a House seat and lost narrowly; he tried again in 1974 and won. In that campaign, he invented “work days,” a technique widely imitated since: he spent a day working at each of a dozen local jobs to better understand people’s experiences. He held the seat with solid percentages in four re-election contests. In 1984, he challenged Republican Sen. Roger Jepsen in the midst of a farm depression in Iowa. Harkin’s support of subsidies for farmers contrasted Jepsen’s advocacy of free-market solutions to economic woes. Jepsen was also vulnerable going into his first re-election. He voted in favor of selling Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to Saudi Arabia after professing loyalty to Israel, which staunchly opposed the sale. He also came across as arrogant for claiming special privileges as a senator after being stopped for driving alone in high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the highway. Harkin won with 55% of the vote.
|Tom Harkin (D)||941,665||(63%)||($5,022,490)|
|Christopher Reed (R)||560,006||(37%)||($58,793)|
|Tom Harkin (D)||90,785||(99%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (54%), 1996 (52%), 1990 (54%), 1984 (55%), 1982 House (59%), 1980 House (60%), 1978 House (59%), 1976 House (65%), 1974 House (51%)
In September 2009, Harkin took over the reins of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee after the death in late August of longtime committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The move gave Harkin substantial impact on health policy and the Obama administration’s health care initiative. He also chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and education, giving him enormous power over both the policy and purse strings of a sizeable segment of the government.
Harkin long has had a hand in health care issues. Two of his sisters died from breast cancer and one brother died from thyroid cancer; another brother became deaf at age 9. Harkin was a key player in shaping the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a major achievement and one that required a bipartisan coalition to overcome resistance to the cost and qualms about the real-world effect of the regulations. Later, in 2008, Harkin led the enactment of amendments to the law that mitigated the weakening effect of Supreme Court decisions. As chairman or senior Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, Harkin worked with his Republican counterpart, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health over five years. Harkin was also a chief Senate advocate of expanding federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research, which uses excess embryos from the in vitro fertilization process. His bill passed 63-37 in July 2006 and 63-34 in April 2007, though not by sufficient margins to override vetoes by President Bush.
Harkin was chairman of the Agriculture Committee from June 2001 to January 2003, an advantageous assignment for a senator from a farm state. He regained the post in January 2007 when Democrats took control of the Senate (although he gave it up to take over the HELP Committee). In both stints, Harkin controlled the gavel during reauthorization of the all-important farm bill. He steered to passage the 2002 farm measure, a considerable achievement because he fashioned a bill to restore subsidies phased out by the Republicans’ 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. His top goals were to increase conservation programs, establish a formula for countercyclical aid, and fight concentration in agribusiness. In November 2001, Harkin introduced his bill, with no limit on farm subsidies. He also included a provision for more spending on conservation and food stamps aimed at securing votes from nonfarm states. The bill was defeated that December, but revived and passed in February 2002 with increased but limited subsidies for grain and cotton, and double the money for conservation. The total cost was an estimated $73.5 billion over 10 years. The bill went to a conference committee with the House. During those negotiations, Republicans led by Rep. Larry Combest, from cotton-farming West Texas, insisted on higher subsidy limits and the deletion of a ban on meatpackers owning livestock. Harkin brought the bill back and got the Senate to pass it.
While the Republicans controlled Congress, Harkin worked to make conservation payments an entitlement and promoted the use of ethanol and alcohol fuels. In 2004, Harkin held up a corporate tax bill to protest an appropriation for $2.8 billion in drought aid by deferring conservation spending and scaling back federal oversight of tobacco; he won a non-binding resolution to restore the conservation money. Farm exports are important to Iowa and Harkin, despite his warm feelings for labor unions, voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and for normalizing trade relations with China in 2000. Unions generally oppose free trade agreements as a threat to domestic jobs.
Democratic victories at the polls in 2006 made Harkin chairman again as the farm bill came up for reauthorization in 2007. His priorities were nutrition programs, increased conservation funds for environmentally friendly farming, and promotion of corn-based ethanol as fuel. In an unusual twist, key negotiations shifted to farm-state members of the Senate Finance Committee, led by Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. Harkin’s critics said he was too protective of his pet programs. But eventually most of his programs were included in the bill: ethanol, more money for nutrition, modest caps on subsidies, and a renamed Conservation Stewardship Program. Two-thirds of the funds in the five-year, $300-billion bill were for food stamps and other nutrition programs. Harkin said his work on the complex legislation was “like giving birth to a porcupine.”
Throughout this decade, Harkin has been the Senate’s leading advocate of better nutrition and fitness for children. “We need a new paradigm in American health care, a prevention paradigm,” he said. Legislation he sponsored in 2004 required schools to set nutritional standards for food available during the school day and made Harkin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grants to schools permanent. In 2005, he called for food companies to do less marketing to children and sponsored a bill to give the Federal Trade Commission authority to regulate advertising directed at children. He is a crusader against childhood obesity, pushing for nutritional standards for food sold in schools. A bill he sponsored in 2006 would have removed candy bars, french fries, ice cream bars, and non-diet soft drinks from schools. With GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska he sponsored a 2007 bill extending school nutrition standards to vending machines and giving the Agriculture Department authority to regulate schools’ snack foods. Opposition came not only from food companies but from school districts eager to earn food revenues. Harkin also favors mandatory nutrition labels on menus in chain restaurants.
On foreign policy, Harkin’s views have been shaped by the Vietnam War. He was a vocal opponent of aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991. But he favored the threat of force in Haiti in 1994, and voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 1998, when President Clinton sought it. Similarly, when President Bush requested congressional approval in October 2002, Harkin voted again for the use of force. But as the violence continued in Iraq, Harkin said in December 2003, it “may not be Vietnam, but, boy, it sure smells like it.” In May 2004, he said abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq reminded him of the tiger cages in Vietnam. He concluded, “It’s time to fire the secretary of Defense.” When Vice President Cheney in 2004 criticized presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam service, Harkin said, “When I hear this coming from Dick Cheney, who was a coward, who would not serve during the Vietnam War, it makes my blood boil. He’ll be tough, but he’ll be tough with someone else’s kid’s blood.” In 2008, Harkin was one of only two senators who opposed the nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to take over the U.S. Central Command.
As an appropriator, Harkin is generous to Iowa and defends earmarks, the practice among lawmakers of designating specific projects for their districts and states. As he said in November 2006, “I happen to be a supporter of earmarks, unabashedly. But I don’t call them earmarks. It is ‘congressional directed spending.’” He cited the millions he directed toward breast cancer research. “Now, was that bad? If you left it to the Defense Department, they never would have done it.” In 2007, Harkin’s subcommittee on spending for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments approved a bill packed with more than 1,000 earmarks.
Harkin has been a major force in Iowa politics. His fervent stands on issues and his hard-edged campaigning give him a large base of loyal supporters as well as a large base of strong detractors. He has never won by a large margin, but in his career he has beaten no fewer than five members of Congress while rarely topping 55% of the vote. He ran for president in 1992. In angry phrases, with a Trumanesque zest, Harkin preached that incumbent George H.W. Bush and the Republicans helped only the rich and that government must get involved to help the poor and middle class. Organized labor withheld an early endorsement despite his 90%-plus AFL-CIO voting record—a great tactical victory for rival Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor. Harkin’s sweep of the Iowa caucuses on February 10 was mostly discounted by the media as a home-field advantage. He then finished with only 10% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and got just 7% in South Carolina on March 7 after campaigning there with civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson. Harkin quit the race. Four years later, he won re-election to the U.S. Senate.
In 2002, Harkin faced a serious challenge from Rep. Greg Ganske, a Des Moines plastic surgeon and Republican who had upset 36-year incumbent Neal Smith in 1994. Ganske argued that his work in the House regulating health maintenance organizations showed that he could find bipartisan solutions to problems. Harkin attacked Ganske for supporting Republican proposals to partially privatize the Social Security fund and touted passage of the farm bill. Polls showed the race fairly close in the summer. Harkin had far more money and, for the first time, the endorsement of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.
But he had to defend against an embarrassing incident involving his campaign staff. A former Harkin staffer changed his registration to Republican and contributed $50 to Ganske, then attended a Ganske fundraising meeting with a tape recorder in his pocket. After the meeting, he turned it over to a 21-year-old Harkin campaign staffer and a transcript was leaked to the media. Harkin’s campaign manager at first denied involvement by the campaign, but he later resigned, and Harkin apologized. Many observers speculated that in squeaky-clean Iowa, the caper would cost Harkin votes. Perhaps it did, but not very many. Harkin won 54%-44%.
For the first time, he breezed to re-election in 2008. Despite early speculation, Iowa’s two remaining Republican House members, Tom Latham and Steve King, declined to challenge Harkin. Instead, he ran against political neophyte Christopher Reed, a small-business owner who raised little money and had scant name recognition. In an October debate, Reed accused Harkin of “providing aid and comfort to the enemy” in Iraq, which Harkin called “beyond the pale.” Following the television taping, Harkin told Reed, “You’re a nice young man, and I thought you had a political future ahead of you. But that just ended your political career right there.” Harkin won 63%-37%.